A letter in Sunday’s NY Times Book Review section made me wince, smile ruefully, and then wince again:

To the Editor:
Caroline Weber’s interesting review of “Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon,” by James Sullivan (Aug. 20), fails to mention the foreign origin of one name for bluejeans.
History tells us that Mr. and Mrs. Levi Strauss spent their summers in Provence, France — specifically at Nîmes, where the heavy blue fabric was made. Because the dye was famous and was found nowhere else, the French called it “bleu de Nîmes.” Strauss anglicized the name to “blue denim.” The rest is history.
Ita Aber
New York

The first wince was at the completely false assertion about the Levi Strausses inventing the word, which has been around since the 17th century (1695 E. HATTON Merchant’s Mag. 159, 18 Serge Denims that cost 6l. each). The rueful smile was an acknowledgment of the irrepressible human need to connect stories with famous people (mixed with gratitude that the basic etymological fact, that denim comes from the phrase de Nîmes, is correct). The second wince was at the thought that the Times, once again, didn’t bother to check up on an assertion about language.
By the way, another letter in the same section added a sad detail to the story of the death of the great science fiction writer known to the field as James Tiptree, Jr. (her “real” name was Alice B. Sheldon): “Sheldon revealed that she had struggled against suicidal urges since her childhood. The handwritten suicide note found beside her corpse in 1987 had been written years earlier; she had carefully saved it until she was ready to use it.”


  1. As every schoolboy knows, the first pair of jeans was made by Claude Lévi-Strauss, the founder of structural haberdashery.

  2. Michael Farris says

    “Claude Lévi-Strauss, the founder of structural haberdashery”
    As so memorably detailed in his book “The Raw and the Acid-washed”.

  3. I suppose I could get through my day without you maniacs, but it would be a lot less fun.

  4. marie-lucie says

    The French phrase for the distinctive material used in blue jeans is “tissu jean” ‘jeans material’ – “un jean” or “un bluejean” (pronounced in an approximation of English) referring to the pants in question. Raymond Queneau, who was fond of writing colloquial French phonetically, wrote “bloudjinns”. I have never heard or seen “bleu de Nimes”, but if I had, I would have thought it referred to a dye or a paint colour, not to the fabric, as in “bleu de Prusse” ‘Prussian blue’.
    (great reference for Levi-Strauss, guys)

  5. If Lévi-Strauss was the man responsible, we now know why the tropiques were triste.

  6. on Alice Tiptree- The recent biography is a facinating read, put it in your to be read pile, somewhere near the top. My copy is on loan so I can’t look this up, but I think she had dated her letter to 1978. A decade later, it was still relevant.

  7. “As so memorably detailed in his book “The Raw and the Acid-washed”.”
    And further expanded upon in his best-selling “The Savage Pants”.

  8. I found that this had more than I expected on the subject of words about pants.

  9. Sigh. At present the Wikipedia entry maidhc links to says “A popular etymology of the word denim is a contraction of serge de Nîmes in France.” Right, and a popular story about George Washington is that he was president of the United States. I love Wikipedia, but it can sure be sloppy and badly written.

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