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Q From Margaret Sonmez: I wondered about the origins of the following term which I have never come across outside knitting patterns: purl (a type of stitch).

A Purl is from an obsolete Scots word pirl, which means a “twist”. It was applied in the sixteenth century to a thread or cord made of twisted gold or silver wire that was used for embroidery. It may be that it was then transferred by analogy to the ribbed look of purl knitting, though the OED has a note saying that the derivation is far from obvious. It is sometimes spelled pearl, which may be a mistake, but may equally imply a different origin.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 25 Jul. 1998

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 25 July 1998.