It is impossible for me not to like this word. It has the sound of a soft-shoe time-step (taffeta taffeta taffeta) and a crisp taste of taffy and perhaps Jaffa cakes and, somewhere back there, coffee and koofteh and muffuletta and tuffets and muffins and assorted other culinary affectations… But so delicate yet raffish, like something from Breakfast at Tiffany’s with Audrey Hepburn. It simply sounds delicious. And so frou-frou.
Well, it should sound frou-frou. Although frou-frou is now popularly used as a frothy synonym for chi-chi (which in turn is being mutated to sheeshy in some quarters and losing its chic French cachet), in origin it’s an imitation of the sound of rustling taffeta – which, yes, can also sound like “taffeta, taffeta” too.
What, exactly, is taffeta? If you’re the average guy, you have an excuse for not really knowing. But actually the available definitions can be pretty imprecise. It’s a kind of stiff, crisp fabric made of silk or synthetic, not for your typical everyday wear – more something to wear to a fête (that sounds a bit like “taffeta” too: “to a fête”). It has more threads in the warp than in the woof (if you’re not down with weaving terms, just think of an Agnes Martin painting; if you’re not down with modern abstracts either, are you sure you’re pretentious enough for this word?). It is often used in linings of dresses and hoods. Yarn-dyed taffeta is particularly crisp; piece-dyed taffeta is softer and has also been used for electrical insulation and parachutes. Which, honestly, sounds like roles it plays in lining formal dresses too.
Where does this word come from? By way of French and other descendants of Latin, from Persian taftah, ‘silken cloth’ or ‘linen clothing’, from a verb meaning ‘shine’ or ‘twist, spin’. It’s been in English since the 1300s (yes, the 1300s) and has named various fabrics in the last seven centuries, but its modern referent has more or less firmed up.
It has in the past also been spelled taffety. This can be seen in a few delectable dishes (just as some delectable dishes can be seen in taffeta): taffety-cream, a glossy dish of cream and eggs mentioned in passing in Oliver Goldsmith’s play She Stoops to Conquer, and taffety-tarts, which contain apple and are worth making just so you can say their name as often as possible.