Will You 'Cotton' to These Word Origins?

Rob Kyff on

"I don't cotton to that idea," a friend said the other day. The idea he wasn't "cottoning to" was my theory that Vice President Mike Pence once played the white-haired "Man from Glad" in TV commercials. After all, have you ever noticed that you never see these two guys together in the same place?

My friend's response got me wondering how "cotton to" came to mean "take a liking to." I plucked the answer from Webb Garrison's informative book "Why You Say It" and Michael Quinion's helpful website

In days of yore, weavers would often rub the surface of newly woven cotton fabric to give it a visible nap. This process filled the air with fluffy cotton fibers that stuck to the weavers' clothing.

During the early 1600s, someone who clung like cotton to you was said to "cotton with you," (which perhaps explains the origin of the term "to give someone the brush off"). By the early 1800s, "to cotton to" had become a general term meaning "to like something," so a person who agreed with an idea was said to "cotton" to it.

Another expression that has always perplexed me is "gun it," meaning to rapidly accelerate a car's engine. I first heard this term at age 16 when my father, who was teaching me to drive, suddenly noticed I was creeping along at 15 mph on an entrance ramp of the New York State Thruway. "Gun it!" he said, in no uncertain terms.

Somehow, I sensed he didn't mean "shoot the car." But "gun it" does have something to do with guns.

World War I fighter pilots would often go into a steep dive and open the throttle all the way to gain maximum speed for a machine-gun attack. The simultaneous acts of revving an engine and firing the machine gun became linked, and soon, pilots and automobile hot-rodders were talking about "gunning" their engines.


Speaking of speed, did you know the common terms "up to speed" and "we're on a roll" were imported from Hollywood? On movie sets before the advent of digital cameras, the director didn't call, "Gun it!" -- er, "Action!" -- until both the sound recording equipment and the film in the camera were rolling in sync at the proper speed, that is, "up to speed."

When this happened, the cast and crew were said to be "on a roll," that is, in the act of filming. It's easy to see how "up to speed" and "on a roll" came to mean "operating at full capacity" and "enjoying a successful run," respectively.

TV commercial director cues Mike Pence: "Lift the Glad bag ... up to speed ... on a roll ... action!"


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2020 Creators Syndicate Inc.



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