Auntie’s diaper bomb

To the devout speaker of British English, the word diaper might seem anathema. To see the BBC, still the bastion of English as she is spoken at the eastern edge of the Atlantic, using the word might make hackles rise. Referring to Amazon’s recent quarterly accounts, we see:

“Most recently, it was forced to shut down its entry into the diaper market just six weeks after launching the initiative.”

Although I suspect that may have resulted from sloppy copying from the source document, a quick flip to Google’s Ngrams and the picture is rather different. Not frequently used, diaper has been appearing in British English books for a long time:

diaperLive Google Ngram for British English ‘diaper’

Delving a little deeper with the OED, the word diaper first referred to a textile fabric, with examples dating back to around 1350, and from the fifteenth century to a more specific linen fabric with a fine, filled diamond pattern woven into it. Shakespeare was among the first to use it as a term for a baby’s napkin (now infantilised as nappy), in The Taming of the Shrew (Induction, Scene 1, lines 55-8):

Let one attend him with a silver basin
Full of rose-water and bestrew’d with flowers,
Another bear the ewer, the third a diaper,
And say “Will’t please your lordship cool your hands?”

The word is also used for the fine, filled diamond pattern characteristic of the original fabric, including heraldic use, and figuratively to floral variegation of the ground, for example by Ruskin (1886): “The diaper pattern of the red and white marbles”.

Coat of Arms of Cröchern, Part of Burgstall, showing a diaper pattern. By Günther Gembalski (Wappen vom LHA Magdeburg erhalten) (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.
Coat of Arms of Cröchern, Part of Burgstall, showing a diaper pattern. By Günther Gembalski (Wappen vom LHA Magdeburg erhalten) (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

In contrast, the OED’s earliest quotation of the current use of nappy is from 1927, when W E Collinson, describing contemporary British English, wrote:

“Mothers and nurses use pseudo-infantile forms like pinny (pinafore), nappy (napkin).”

However Google Ngram shows a more sustained occurrence:

nappyLive Google Ngram for British English ‘nappy’

Of course older incidence may be for the word’s use for ale or liquor, or an earthenware or glass dish, other uses of nappy which have now largely lapsed.

I do not think that much, if any, of this was running through the mind of the BBC’s anonymous reporter, though. It still looks suspiciously like a quick copy and paste job to me.