Cotton on

Posted by James Briggs on August 14, 2002

In Reply to: Cotton (verb) posted by Word Camel on August 14, 2002

: : : : The origin of " I don't cotton to that".

: : : The Oxford English Dictionary gives earlier figurative senses of "cotton": "To prosper, succeed, 'get on' well" (obsolete) and "To 'get on' together or with each other; to suit each other; to work harmoniously, harmonize, agree." The OED says the origin of the figurative senses is uncertain but directs the reader to some of its quotations. First, "cotton" as a verb has a few literal meanings, including this old one: "Of cloth, etc.: To form or take on a nap, to rise with a nap." Now, these are the quotations that hint at the transition to the figurative sense:
: : :
: : : [Literal sense:]
: : : In making Hats, 'To Cotton well', is when the Wooll and other Materials work well and imbody together .
: : : 'Cotton', to succeed, to go on prosperously: a metaphor, probably, from the finishing of cloth, which when it cottons, or rises to a regular nap, is nearly or quite complete .
: : : [Figurative sense:]
: : : It cottens well; it cannot choose but bear A pretty nap .

: : : Presumably the later figurative senses, "To agree, to fraternize" and "To 'take' to, attach oneself to; to become drawn or attached to," developed from the earlier figurative ones.

: : You learn something new every day on this board. There I was, reading the previous two posts and wondering what the Heck they were talking about, till a dash to my dictionary fortunately revealed that "to cotton to something" is a US expression apparently meaning to begin to like something. I'm pretty sure that this usage is totally unknown in the UK.

: : Speaking of cotton as a verb, does the US have the expression "to cotton on (to something)", meaning to realise or come to understand, which is prevalent in the UK?

: I may have lost all perspective, but I think "Cotton on to" is used in the US". I wonder if it refers to the tendency for raw cotton and cotton fibers to cling to things? I could see how the express could have arisen both in growing cotton and milling it.

Here's what I've found. Incidentally, to 'cotton on' in the sense of to understand something is the standard use in the UK.
To cotton on to someone is to adhere to them, perhaps when not wanted; or to eventually understand an idea or intention, again perhaps when this is unwelcome. The origin here is nothing more than the fact that cotton thread seems to stick to almost anything and can be difficult to dislodge. The saying is recorded in a play as early as 1605. Clearly the saying is a lot older.