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Is it a diaper or is it a nappy? Why do different English-speaking countries name them differently?
The term diaper is used in North America and Canada whereas the word nappy is used in Australia, New Zealand, UK, Ireland and other Commonwealth countries. For each word, the definition remains the same: “a garment consisting of a folded cloth drawn up between the legs and fastened at the waist; worn by infants to catch excrement.”
The beginning of disposable and cotton diapers
In 1820, the production of thick rectangular cotton cloth diapers sparked the industrial revolution. Until the 1940’s during World War II, many women were employed to fill the positions of men who were sent off to war. This left little time for re-usable cotton cloth diapers to be washed by hand. With lack of time, the popularity of disposable diapers increased.
The word ‘nappy’ is from the early 20th century and believed to have derived from the word napkin. Napkin is an English word from the French term nappe which means tablecloth. The word napkin was used as another term to describe small cloths such as towels and handkerchiefs. Napkin became a popular term in which we still use today to gently wipe our mouths and hands at the dinner table. Today, nappy is short for baby napkin.
The word ‘diaper’ is used in North America and Canada and comes from the Old French word diaprewhich translates to “ornamental cloth”. This term refers to “the act of putting a small pattern on a cloth that was mostly white”.
Early diapers were made of soft tissue cut into repeating geometric shapes. This pattern was known as diapering. From the act of diapering, we adopted the word diaper to simply describe white cotton or linen fabric with a pattern of repeating geometric shapes.
So, is it a diaper or a nappy? The answer is both! Technically speaking, the terms ‘nappy’ and ‘diaper’ developed on their own in separate countries just like many other words we use today. Ever notice how American’s use the term Jelly and Australian’s use the term Jam? It’s pretty much the same principle. Through history, the individual words have developed to what they are today and have been taught, passed down and integrated into the language we learn and use from a young age.
Darlings Down Under. (2014). Nappy Versus Diaper.
Diaper Answers. (2017). Diaper Word Origin and Early History.
Sanny Hot. (2021). History of the Diaper.
Vocabulary.com. (2021). Diaper.