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Etymology of Jeans

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

This is a bit of a mythbuster...

Pile of different types of jeans

Etymology is, of course, the study of the origin of words and how the meaning of words has changed over the course of history. And, following last Sunday's widely read explanation of the etymology of the word handicap, OGN is going to publish the 'source code' for a new word for the next few weeks in the OGN Sunday Magazine. Today, the word under the historic microscope is: jeans.

Although jeans are quintessentially American, and their invention is commonly attributed to Jacob W. Davis and Levi Strauss, the etymology of the popular garment is actually of European origin.

The fabric Strauss used for his patented, mass-produced trousers was first produced in Genoa, Italy and Nimes, France. Why’s that significant? Well, the French word for Genoa is Gênes, and the name “jeans” is likely an anglicization of the material’s city of origin. Similarly, the word “denim” most likely comes from de Nimes, meaning “from Nimes” in French.

Although we often talk about denim jeans nowadays, the two materials actually differed. Denim was coarser, more durable and of higher quality than the toughened cotton corduroy manufactured in Genoa. Workers in Northern Italy were sporting jeans as early as the 17th century, long before post-war American subcultures picked up on them as a fashion accessory.


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