Monday, 13 October 2014

Diaper - The American's Nappy

Is it a diaper or is it a nappy?
(photo by Miss Messie)


Noun and adjective. Middle English.
[Old French dia(s)pre from medieval Latin diasprum from medieval Greek diaspros, adjective, formed as DIA- + aspros white.]

A1 noun. A kind of textile, since the 15th century a linen or cotton material woven
so that it consists of a pattern of small diamonds, each filled with some device. ME

A2 noun. A towel, napkin, etc., of this material;
(now chiefly N.American) a baby's nappy (originally made of diaper). L16

A3 noun. A geometrical or ornamental design in which a panel, shield, etc., is covered by diamonds;
any space-filling geometrical pattern. M17

B1 adj. (Made) of diaper. LME

B2 adj. Having a pattern of diamonds, diapered. LME

Here's an Americanism I absolutely loathe: diaper. Go on: say it in a really whiney, overblown (over here) American accent: Diaper! Somebody change that diaper! Gotta get me some new diapers! Urgh. It really is the height of unsophistication. The British English nappy is just so much more refined.

Well ... except ... it's not. Now don't misunderstand me - I truly detest the word diaper. But my reasons make absolutely no sense whatsoever. For one thing, diaper isn't a newer, cruder version of nappy at all - diaper was originally a rather expensive fabric, one that eventually came to be used in the 15th century for making baby's nappies. And its linguistic origins? It's a seasoned traveller indeed, arriving to modern English along the veritably prestigious lineage of Middle English, Old French, medieval Latin and medieval Greek.

And what about nappy? Well this is where any notion of linguistic superiority just falls apart, as nappy is an abbreviation of napkin; or rather, less an abbreviation and more the sort of baby-waby cuddly-wuddly kiddy-widdy talk that I really hate: "Aww! Does our widdle booby-boo need his nappy-wappy-napkin changed?" Bleugh. Clearly, there's no sophisticated Britishness in nappy - it's just faux baby-talk piffle that popped up at some point in the early 20th century.

So I think we've all learned something here. Firstly, don't just assume that, because a word is American, it's younger than its British counterpart; and don't assume that because something is younger it's better. And don't assume that because something is British English its roots are more prestigious. Still, having said all this, diaper still sounds intolerably uncouth to my refined British ears, so I'm sticking with the British version (and that, ladies and gentlemen, is one nappy I will never change).

Ah, the internet! Font of advice for all idiots on all things ...
Do you say diaper or nappy or something else?

Do please leave your most changeable comments in the box below.


  1. Here in Canada we invariably refer to the lovely item as "diaper." The first time I heard "nappy", I didn't even know what it was! It does sound rather more pleasant.

    1. I think the use of 'nappy' is quite widespread, used in (I believe) Britain, Ireland, South Africa and Australia. Someone do correct me if I'm wrong!

    2. The nappy term makes sense as the "ancient" nappies (in cloth, a huge square of fabric that new mothers dreaded to fold and fasten right by religiously following the footsteps, including that one you posted; so don't mock those instructions, they were priceless and to achieve the right a proud moment) were folded to resemble a napkin.
      Our word for it is very different ("fralda") but I prefer nappy without the baby talk. Thank you ahahah

  2. This Lexicolatry post reminded me of a word I last saw when, as a boy, I was in a church choir. It was a stop on the organ labelled 'diapason'. It means 'a rich outpouring of melodious sound'. Having a few sons in later years, diapason also reminded me of the rich outpouring of malodorous smells, and sounds, that nappies gave vent to on most days. What worse is that I had to change the really bad ones.