It’s an odd bit of cultural imperialism that Anglophone diaper fetishists of all nationalities have accepted the acronym “DL” acronym, for “diaper lover” — odd, that is, because the use of the word “diaper” to refer to a protective undergarment is thoroughly American. In most of the English-speaking world it’s a “nappy,” and yet we see relatively few references to adult “nappy lovers” online.
If you want an example of how pervasive the American word has become, Google anything you like with “nappy” as one of the search terms. Look at the results and you’ll realize that Google has automatically translated that to “diaper,” and highlighted usages of both words. You’ll have to put “nappy” in quotes, denoting an exact word search, if you don’t want results that use the word “diaper” to pop up as well.
Etymology of the Word “Diaper”
So how did we get this all-powerful American terminology?
Well, from Middle English by way of French by way of Latin by way of Byzantine Greek, of course, because that’s just how the English language works!
The original English use of the word described a textile, not a garment. “Dyaper,” from the French “diaspre,” meant a patterned silk cloth with small repeating diamond figures in the weave. A 1513 English-language poem titled St. Werburge gives us an example of the usage: “The tables were couered with clothes of Dyaper Rychly enlarged with syluer and with golde.” Similarly, in The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare uses it to describe a towel for a gentleman to wash his hands with:
Let one attend him with a silver basin
Full of rose-water and bestrew’d with flowers;
Another bear the ewer, the third a diaper,
And say ‘Will’t please your lordship cool your hands?’
That word, in all its variant spellings, came to the French (and therefore the English) by way of the Latin “diasprum,” which was itself derived from “diaspros.” The prefix “dia-” means “very” or “entirely,” while “aspros” has its own odd etymology: originally, the word meant “rough,” but it was used in Byzantium to describe the surface of newly-minted coins, which were made of silver. Over time, the word became associated with the properties of silver, and it came to mean a bright, pure, shiny quality that got tied into the concept of white cloth.
So our modern “diaper” is a mangled and shortened version of a Greek term meaning, loosely, “very white” or “very shiny,” which was used for centuries to describe a particular weave of cloth, probably because the diamond-patterned weave reflected light at different angles and created a visible sheen on the surface.
There is no reliable historical explanation for how the name of the cloth became the name of an undergarment. Presumably at some point along the way diaper-woven cloth (probably linen rather than the silk it originally referred to) became cheap and plentiful enough that mothers used it to wrap around their infants, but the first confirmed usage of the word to mean a baby’s diaper only dates back to 1837.
The verb form, “diapering,” meant the process of applying a small, repeating pattern to cloth until the mid-nineteenth century when, in America, it evolved into the modern usage.
But What About Nappy?
With all that history behind one English word, we could safely expect the British counterpart, “nappy,” to have a similarly colorful background — but, alas, that one’s pretty boring. “Nappy” is simply a diminutive of “napkin,” which is itself a Middle English mangling of the Latin “mappa,” meaning tablecloth, with the diminutive “-kin” suffix slapped on the end.
The obvious meaning there — a small square of cloth — has been around since at least the early 15th century, and mothers used all kinds of “napkins” in their homemade cloth diapers, leading us to “nappy.”
So take comfort in the apparent dominance of the Americanized term over the British one in modern online usage. It’s a much more interesting story!.