Irritating Byssus.

Felicitas Maeder’s article “Irritating Byssus – Etymological Problems, Material facts, and the Impact of Mass Media” (pdf; from Textile Terminologies from the Orient to the Mediterranean and Europe, 1000 BC to 1000 AD 36 [2017]) begins by quoting the OED’s etymological entry for the term byssus:

< Latin byssus, < Greek βύσσος ‘a fine yellowish flax, and the linen made from it, but in later writers taken for cotton, also silk, which was supposed to be a kind of cotton’ (Liddell & Scott), < Hebrew būts, applied to ‘the finest and most precious stuffs, as worn by kings, priests, and persons of high rank or honour’ (Gesenius), translated in Bible of 1611 ‘fine linen’, < root *būts, Arabic bāḍ to be white, to surpass in whiteness. Originally therefore a fibre or fabric distinguished for its whiteness.

It then examines written and material evidence of byssos in antiquity (“All mummy bandages analysed until today are made of linen”), the term byssus in the Bible (“In the Old Testament, different Hebrew linen terms were translated with the single term byssus in the Latin vulgate”), and later developments; she sums up this part of the argument thus:

The conclusion is: In antiquity byssus was a fine textile of linen (or cotton, rarely silk). In the 16th century the filaments of bivalves like Pinna, blue mussel and others were given the name byssus, in analogy to the ancient byssus.

The fatal consequences for textile history are: From that moment on, textiles called byssus in antique texts were no longer associated only with linen (or cotton, rarely silk). Byssus became, in popular wisdom, for journalists and for some authors, sea-silk. With the simple logic: byssus is the name of the filaments of the Pinna nobilis of which was made sea-silk, byssus is found in the Bible and in profane antique literature, so byssus is, almost always and everywhere and at any time: sea-silk.

She goes on to talk about sea-silk in antiquity and in Italy, with extended quotes from the Enciclopedia italiana di science, lettere ed arti di Treccani, and ends with an extended section on “Invented tradition and the role of mass media,” concluding:

John Peter Wild stated once: “To discover the meaning of a specific textile term, a lexicon is a good place to start, but a bad place to end.” How true! Studying the terms byssus and sea-silk in lexicons and dictionaries is of nearly no help. They only render the researchers uncertain with all their inconsistencies and contradictions. As we have seen, even actual specialised dictionaries raise more questions than answering them. […]

These few examples – from the thesis of a Roman university to historical and textile studies of antique and medieval times up to a modern specialised lexicon and biological reference book – show the consequences of the impact of mass media in present-day research, at least in the matter of byssus and sea-silk. The ‘power of naming’ – so it seems – lies more and more in fanciful websites, odd blogs, facebook accounts, and magic events around ‘secret and sacred old traditions’.

Interesting stuff; thanks, Trevor!


  1. Charlotte Mandell says

    How interesting, to encounter this word twice on the same day — I had just read this post about byssus as sea silk this morning:

  2. Persian has a word būqalamūn بوقلمون meaning “of various hues, variegated; changeable” and also “chameleon”. It’s from Arabic ’abū qalamūn, said to be an alteration (folk-etymologically influenced by ’abū , “father, one that produces, animal characterized in a certain way”) of “moiré, shimmering fabric”, from Greek ὑποκάλαμον. The Arabic term has had wide-ranging success across the Islamicate world as a word for brilliant birds. Babur reports in the Baburnama (1531) that this name was given to the monaul (Lophophorus refulgens) or a similar bird of Afghanistan. Sorani has قەلەوموونە qelewmûne as the name for the turkey. On the western edge of the Islamicate world, the same word is found in Spanish as calamón, the purple swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio).

    The first edition of the Brill Encyclopedia of Islam ( has this to say on (’a)bū qalamūn:

    Originally Abū Ḳalamūn designated the pinna (Greek ύποκάλαμον), of whose thready byssus (ṣūf al-baḥr „sea wool“) tissues with a peculiar golden glittering were prepared. The philologists (Ṣirāfī, Azharī, Ḏj̲awharī) know Abū Ḳalamūn almost only as a kind of cloth of variegated colors brought into commerce by the Byzantines.

    However, I haven’t been able to trace this word ὑποκάλαμον to get a handle on whether it really referred to “sea silk” or not. After looking at the problem of the semantics and etymology of byssus a while ago, I became leery of any discussion touching on “sea silk”. I wonder if anyone in the Language Hat readership with specialized library access can tell something more about ὑποκάλαμον.

  3. Xerîb,

    ‘Sorani has قەلەوموونە qelewmûne as the name for the turkey.’

    I learn today that in Afghanistan the turkey is فیل‌ مرغ, ‘elephant-fowl,’ but the usual word for the bird in Persian in Iran is exactly your بوقلمون. Thanks for the background on it, I was struck by the word when I came across it first, why did this New World animal have what looked so much like an Old World name?!

  4. Serjeant‘s Material for a History of Islamic Textiles up to the Mongol Conquest cites some mentions of būqalamūn.

    In XVI as būḳalamūn, but due OCR you need to search for buikalamuin.

    In XXI, on sea-wool specifically, as Abū Ḳalamūn. There is a section here about the so-named bird rubbing off its down (وبر) on the sea-shore.

    The previous section (same article) proposes that a 16th century mention of toile bigarée meant Abū Ḳalamūn.

    Here is Dozy‘s entry.

  5. And here is Fleischer, to whom Dozy refers.

  6. I was always puzzled by the name “bissel threads” for the things that hold mussels in place on rocks.


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