To "cotton to" is an idiom born of the cotton industry, meaning to get to know or understand something. In the textile industry, when a fiber cottons, it does a good job of blending in with other fibers to make cloth. Example using the idiom:

I don't recon that boy cottons likely to strangers.

This has been in the language for centuries but I don't often hear it much, if at all.

  • 2
    Yes. Mostly where it originated. – SrJoven Feb 3 '15 at 2:38
  • I've never heard "cotton" used idiomatically in this context. I am, however, familiar with the English idiom "cotton on to", which refers to understanding something. It's a little like "the penny dropping". – Deepak Feb 3 '15 at 2:58
  • Or, more accurately and commonly, to cotton to or take a cotton to. – anongoodnurse Feb 3 '15 at 3:06
  • I haven't heard it in years, so I can't say if younger folks hereabouts would recognize the term. Certainly anyone raised in the 60s would know the term from "Daniel Boone" and "The Beverly Hillbillies". – Hot Licks Feb 3 '15 at 3:50
  • It used to be used a lot in Britain too, particularly by my parents generation who have now departed. But it is one of those expressions which has dropped out of fashion. That may have something to do with the loss of the textile industry to the Far East. – WS2 Feb 7 '15 at 9:24

The predominant meaning of "to cotton" is to like something. Cotton on to, meaning to understand, grasp, was colloquial in the early 1900s. (OED)

Besides its usual sense as a noun for the plant used to make cloth, cotton is also a verb meaning to get along with, to like.

It's been used since 1488, but didn't take on it's meaning of being in harmony with until the beginning of the 17th century, the sense of prospering had shifted to that of being in harmony, of getting along. From the 1605 Play Stucley:

John a Nokes and John a Style and I cannot cotton.

Yes, it's still being used, especially in the South (where cotton was king). From the internet:

  • Nov 21, 2012 - He never did take a cotton to authority.
  • Oct 17, 2013 - Sparky is said to be a headless man who does not take a cotton to uninvited guests.
  • Dec 4, 2009 - Watt and his brothers didn't take a "cotton" to them.
  • Dec 1, 2014 - Just didn't take a cotton to FPJ. His accent is weirdly variable...

There are actually two closely related expressions to disentangle here: cotton to and cotton on (or onto). The former means, as anongoodnurse points out in her answer, to like or take to. The latter can mean the same thing or it can mean to understand.

Thus, Dickens has Mr. Squeers use the idiom "cotton to" in discussing the special favor he had previously shown the runaway Smike (in Nicholas Nickleby, 1838–1839):

I have been that chap's classical, commercial, mathematical, philosophical, and trigonomical friend. My son—my only son, Wackford—has been his brother; Mrs. Squeers has been his mother, grandmother, aunt—ah! and I may say uncle, too, all in one. She never cottoned to any body, except them two engaging and delightful boys of yours, as she cottoned to this chap.

And Robert W. Service, The Trail of '98: A Northland Romance (1911), has this:

When they saw us they were hugely surprised. Ribwood was one of the party.

"Hello," he says roughly; "any more coming after you boys?"

"Don't see them," said the Prodigal breathlessly. "We spied you and cottoned on to what was up, so we made a fierce hike to get in on it. Gee, I'm all tuckered out."

An Ngram chart of "cottoned to" (red line) versus "cottoned on" (blue line) versus "cottoned onto" (green line) suggests that "cottoned on" became more common than "cottoned to" over the last 50 years of the period from 1800 to 2008:

I don't know whether that reflects a change in spoken usage of the two terms or not, however. Clearly, all three phrases remain in current written use.

  • Interesting graph. Why does it stop around 1830? Usage pre-dates by quite a bit. – Allison Hunt Feb 3 '15 at 7:14
  • @AllisonHunt: At least as filtered through its Ngram search, Google Books doesn't find any matches for the three search times I used from earlier than 1835. I actually ran a search going back to 1700, but the result was a flat line for each of the three terms prior to 1835. It's wise to keep in mind that Ngrams are by no means exhaustive. – Sven Yargs Feb 3 '15 at 16:02
  • I pretty sure cottoned onto is an eggcorn of caught on to or gotten on to. As in "the boss has gotten on to him about his shirking." When someone says "he's cottoned on to you", it usually is someone in authority and there is usually the implication of consequences. – Phil Sweet May 24 '17 at 23:21

Not only do I use "cotton to" (I'm from the South), depending on the time of year and the outside temperature, I also use "woolen to" in the winter, "silken to" in the Summer, and "polyester to" never!

  • 1
    And, I hope, "linen to" in the fall, in honor of the October Revolution. – Sven Yargs May 25 '17 at 1:59

protected by NVZ May 25 '17 at 8:40

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