Photo by Hisashi from Japan
[CC BY-SA 2.0],
What is the first thing that pops into your mind when I say “tabby”? If you are a cat person, or even if you’re not, you probably think of a cat with a striped coat, just like the one pictured here. This is only proper because, as far as we cats are concerned, that is exactly what a tabby is.
Recently, though, She of Little Talent informed me that the word tabby can mean other things too. Old SoLT also told me that tabby at first referred to a type of silk that was produced in a particular part of Baghdad.
First, the silk
Merriam-Webster says that the first meaning of tabby is a “plain silk taffeta especially with a moiré finish, originally striped, later with a watered finish.” The word apparently came to us from the French tabis, which came from the Arabic al-῾Attābiyya, which was a Baghdad neighborhood where this type of cloth was made. The English word tabby started showing up in the mid-1600s to refer to this fabric (so says the Oxford English Dictionary).
This explanation makes sentences like “The Duke of York, who was dressed in a pale blue watered tabby” make sense—and sound a lot less disturbing (the 1760 quote is from Horace Walpole and appears in the OED).
Next, the cat
By the late 1600s, tabby was being linked with cat to describe the familiar striped cat—a tabby cat or tabby-cat—almost certainly because their coats resembled the silk of that name. Later still, in the 1700s, tabby cats came to be called just “tabbies.” By the 1800s, tabby could also refer to any female cat, as in “tabbies and toms” (though we think this is confusing, because old SoLT has met quite a few male tabbies).
Finally, a few other meanings
Tabby can also mean
- a dress made of tabby (the fabric, not the cat)
- an old maid or a gossipy woman (the OED suggests that this meaning may be a shortening of the name Tabitha—which could also be how tabby came to refer to a female cat)
- a young woman
- a very hard concrete made of lime with shells, gravel or stones (originally called tabby work).
But the best meaning of tabby is and will always be “a cat having a striped or brindled coat.”