Nylon

This is the full read-only archive of the "Ask the Wordwizard" section of the original Wordwizard site. The responses to the questions originate from Jonathon Green, the compiler of the Cassell Dictionary of Slang and numerous other dictionaries.
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Nylon

Post by Archived Topic » Sat Dec 20, 1997 12:00 am

What is the origin of the term "nylon"? Is it true that the two scientists who invented nylon in the 30's were from New York and LONdon?
Submitted by Harish Varanasi (Troy - U.S.A.)
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Nylon

Post by Jonathon Green » Sun Dec 21, 1997 8:00 am

The world's first nylon stockings went on sale - to American women - on May 15, 1940. 72,000 of the new fashion accessory sold in the first eight hours, and the success story has continued ever since.





The new synthetic `Nylon', a substitute for silk, had become public three years earlier when on February 16 1937 scientist Dr Wallace Carothers received US patent no. 2071250 for his revolutionary invention. Carothers had been working on the material throughout the Thirties, after discovering the principle behind it at the start of the decade.





Unfortunately Carothers did not live to see the success of his discovery: a deeply depressed man, he killed himself in 1939. Its chemical linkages were the same as those that held silk together, but after stretching it is even stronger than the natural material. It resisted chemicals and abrasion, and was relatively moisture resistant. Most important, nylon was far cheaper than silk. With American women buying six million pairs of silk stockings every year, let alone the rest of the world, the potential for their nylon replacements was enormous.





Although there exist a number of fanciful etymologies for the word, the Du Pont company stressed that `nylon' was chosen almost at random. They wanted a word that sounded a little like a textile - and so used the `-on' ending of cotton and rayon, two well-known materials. Otherwise the word has `absolutely no significance.' All that mattered was that it was different to any other word in the dictionary. For all Du Pont's emphasis on their random choice, the word they created has become one of the dozen or so English words that are known literally worldwide. Its local meaning, however, can differ from the norm. In the Caribbean, where `nylon' stood for anything new and superior, a `nylon road' meant a smooth, well-surfaced road. In Serbo-Croat, on the other hand, the word was seen as slightly risqué. Thus `nylon beach' is a nudist beach, and `nylon hotel' a brothel.
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