Taking a dip into the language of swimming
The British summer may be shaping up to be something of a damp squib so far, but that hasn’t stopped a new swimwear term making it into the dictionary in 2016. Thanks to its push by leading British retailers Marks and Spencer and House of Fraser, the word burkini has entered widespread use this year, and it’s had us dipping our toes into the changing language of swimming and bathing.
You say bikini, I say burkini
The portmanteau burkini comes from combining bikini with burka, and it’s a term for an all-over swimming garment designed to protect the modesty of Muslim swimmers. The bikini itself originally came about thanks to wartime shortages; during the Second World War, the United States ordered a 10% reduction in the use of fabric for bathing costumes, resulting in the creation of the two-piece number still popular today. The alleged origins of the word bikini are perhaps more surprising; it’s the name of the atoll in the Marshall Islands where an atom bomb was detonated in 1946. The link with this radical new style of swimwear? Its ‘explosive’ effect.
By contrast, the burkini calls to mind the more modest swimwear of the Victorian period, when bathing costumes took the form of cumbersome jacket-like top halves with three-quarter length trousers, similar to undergarments called drawers. Later, from 1928 onwards, the now little-used term maillot (pronounced ‘my-yo’) described a one-piece swimsuit, while the related term tank suit makes reference to a tank of water for swimming in. Further evidence of the evolution of swimwear lingo: fast forward to the 1990s and the Australian slang budgie smugglers describes men’s figure-hugging swimming trunks.
Lean, mean bathing machine
Unrevealing though it was, even Victorian swimwear wasn’t quite enough to uphold contemporary ideals of modesty. Cue the rise of the bathing machine, a sort of horse-drawn wooden beach hut on wheels that would be pushed, lady inside, into the sea, allowing her the privacy to get changed and to enter and exit the water directly, all while revealing as little of the body as possible. Some seaside resorts at the time also offered the services of so-called dippers. Not to be confused with the more modern skinny-dipper (a term for a nude bather, first attested in 1947), dippers were strong people whose job it was to help unconfident swimmers into and out of the sea.
From breaststroke to the Trudgen
You don’t need to be an expert on swimming to have heard of the breaststroke, but what about the Trudgen? This swimming stroke is the forerunner to what we now know as front crawl. It’s named after Sir John Arthur Trudgen, who picked it up from local tribes on his travels in Buenos Aires in the late 1860s and brought it back to England, introducing it to the growing sport of competitive swimming. While some derided the undignified splashing it entailed, its speed meant it became popular the world over, remaining so to this day.
Swimming goggles and snorkels
Human swimming is attested in prehistoric cave art (the Cave of Swimmers in Egypt’s Wadi Sura, if you’re interested), but a popular piece of swimming paraphernalia is much more recent in origin. The snorkel – the breathing apparatus that allows a swimmer to breathe while swimming beneath the surface – is an anglicized spelling of the German word Schnorchel, a slang word meaning nose or snout used by the German navy in reference to the appearance and noise of air shafts on submarines (the word itself comes from schnarchen, meaning to snore). Its English spelling is first attested in 1949, and its meaning as we know it today in 1951.
As for another useful piece of swimming equipment, the word goggle is thought to derive from the Middle English gogelen, meaning to ‘look to one side or squint’. The use of the word to describe protective glasses is thought to date back to the early 18th century, and likely relates to the concept of goggly or protruding eyes.