March 12, 2001
John Wiltenmuth wrote:
Growing up in the Deep South I used to frequently hear the expression "I don't much cotton to that...." I rarely hear it anymore, but was curious as to how it came about.
You may not hear cotton to very often because it has now become more stigmatized as a Southern U.S. regionalism. However, various meanings of the verb have long histories, and used to be more widespread.
Other than in its original, trade-specific meaning, cotton as a verb has always been used in informal, mostly spoken locutions. Five hundred years ago, to "cotton" wool was to use friction to make it rise to a regular nap. If cloth "cottoned well," the result was satisfactory, especially if you were trying to get the nap of different pieces of fabric to work together. (The article Cotton in the Middle Ages discusses what cotton meant before the fabric as we know it was in common use.)
By extension, the expression to cotton well developed its first figurative meaning of 'to agree; suit; fit or go well together'. This meaning is listed in the Century Dictionary, and both it and the OED note the 16th-17th-expression "this gear cottons," meaning that a situation is favorable or likely to succeed.
From the idea of getting on well together came the senses of 'fraternizing' (cotton up to) and 'agreement with or strong liking for' (cotton to). You could cotton to a person, an idea, or even a drink; nowadays, you usually hear the expression in the negative, don't cotton to, and it's usually used in reference to a concept, activity, or type of behavior rather than to people or concrete things. The following excerpts from recent listserv discussions show that the expression is still alive and well:
"And by all means forgive me if I don't cotton to the current PC wary way of thinking about the world these days, I have no patience for that rubbish."The final quote is from someone who is deliberately trying to mimic Southern speech in a derisive way, but the sources of the other quotes--and there are many, many more--are by no means exclusively Southern.
You may also have cottoned on to the fact that there is another sense, used with on, that means 'to figure out'; this is largely a 20th-century meaning. We have a citation in our files from Time magazine, 1957: "...Washington's Democratic Senator Henry ('Scoop') Jackson, who had cottoned on to what the scientists were up to while visiting the Livermore plant."
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