• tabby •
tæ-bee • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, adjective
Meaning: 1. Silk taffeta or a dress made from silk taffeta. 2. A common gray, brown, or orange domestic cat with a striped or brindled coat. 3. (Offensive) An old maid, a spinster.
Notes: Today's Good Word is a ball of lexical irony: a word of exotic Middle Eastern origin but today referring to the commonest of house cats (see the Word History for more). It comes without any real family. It can be used as-is for an adjective as in tabby cat, tabby weave or, in the original sense, tabby gown.
In Play: Most English speakers stopped using today's Good Word to refer to cloth and dresses made from it at the end of the 19th century but that doesn't preclude our reviving its use today: "Maud Lynn Dresser came to the party in a tabby dress that must have been made at the time when all tabby was still striped." But most of our tabbies today are of the feline variety: "Your Abyssinian must have offended my tabby, for I just saw my cat chasing yours pell-mell down the street."
Word History: In the 1630s tabby was striped silk taffeta. The word came from French tabis, a rich, watered silk that originally always bore stripes. Tabis was a reduction of Medieval Latin attabis borrowed in the 14th century from Arabic 'attabiya. 'Attabiy is a quarter of Baghdad, where this watered silk was first made. This section of Baghdad was named for prince 'Attab of the Omayyad dynasty. The name for tabby cats originated in adjectival use, tabby-colored cat. When this phrase was simplified to tabby cat, it referred only to female cats, and this sense may have rubbed off on old maids. Some have suggested that this sense of tabby is a reduction of Tabitha, but no one seems to know why this name would have taken on the new meaning. (Thank you Susan Maynard for sensing the exoticity hidden in such a common word as tabby and suggesting it as today's Good Word.)