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I'm talking about the stuff you use when you're polishing. According to etymonline.com, this usage has been around for less than 200 years:

polish (n.) 1590s, "absence of coarseness," from polish (v.). From 1704 as "act of polishing;" 1819 as "substance used in polishing."

Surely there would have been a need before then for a generic word, to include whatever sorts of materials were used for the purpose (wax, ash, rubbing pastes etc). Clearly the verb "to polish" was applied to a wide variety of subject matter (from the 14th Century onwards). It would be surprising if the respective polishing agents were so specialised that they weren't referred to collectively.

Was a different word used, that was then replaced by "polish"? Or is the date wrong?

I've failed to find anything older; searching for "some polish" before 1800 brings up things like

"being first also figured on the hones, with a little putty washed very fine and fair water; till it begins to shew some polish."

from A Complete System Of Opticks by Robert Smith, 1738. Could putty be a candidate?

Edit - In summary: was another word used for 'all the various substances used for polishing', before the modern noun polish?

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  • I have to admit, I'm having trouble figuring out what you want to know. What are you really asking? Can you sum it up in a single sentence?
    – Robusto
    Oct 22 '15 at 15:47
  • Why did there need to be a specific word? There are all sorts of things English didn't/doesn't have a specific word for. From Wikipedia: "In the 19th century many forms of shoe polish became available, yet were rarely referred to as shoe polish or boot polish. Instead, they were often called blacking (especially when mixed with lampblack), or simply continued to be referred to as dubbin." Oct 22 '15 at 15:48
  • @Robusto - Edited to add a summary question.
    – JHCL
    Oct 22 '15 at 15:52
  • I'm with Peter Shor. Oiling leather, waxing marble, and lacquering wood are rather different actions for different purposes using different substances; adding a shine to the object in premodern times is a side effect. So I'm not so surprised that a common word for such disparate materials would have arrived so late; if anything, that shoe polish, nail polish, silver polish, and wood polish should all share a common word is what is unusual.
    – choster
    Oct 22 '15 at 17:22
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    I would imagine that, prior to "polish" as a noun for the material attaining official stature, specific terms were used for specific polishing compounds -- wax, oil, emery, pumice, rouge, etc. The need for the noun "polish" only arose when the prepared compounds began to be produced commercially.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 22 '15 at 18:15
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I don't believe there was a word for polish in English before 1800. One could always have said polishing compound if one needed to refer to the general class of substances used for polishing things. There are lots of classes of things in English that don't have a general word for them. For example, there is no word that encompasses spades, shovels, hoes, and trowels; one has to say digging tool.

There certainly wasn't a general word for polish that was used for shoe polish. According to Wikipedia, the words used for shoe polish before the middle of the 19th century were blacking and dubbin:

In the 19th century many forms of shoe polish became available, yet were rarely referred to as shoe polish or boot polish. Instead, they were often called blacking (especially when mixed with lampblack), or simply continued to be referred to as dubbin. – Wikipedia.

Neither word could have been used for the whole range of things called polish today: the word dubbin originally meant a wax-based compound used for softening leather, which didn't necessarily impart a shine to the shoes; and the word blacking could only have been used for compounds that imparted a black color as well as a shine.

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  • Yes that's clear enough, thanks - I also like @HotLicks' note about commercial production and marketing.
    – JHCL
    Oct 24 '15 at 19:03
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The OED has an example of the verb polish from Wycliffe's Bible of 1382, as its earliest reference.

So far as the noun goes, that meaning refinement, culture, elegance of manner has an example from 1597, but none of such examples are from Shakespeare - interestingly. It would seem surprising that he should not have picked up on it if it was around in his day.

1597 J. Payne Royall Exchange 19 This poore pamphlett,..without fynenes of methode, or pullishe of art.

As far as any substance called polish is concerned, the earliest example the OED gives is from an entry in the Post Office directory:

1819 Post Office London Directory 367 Wheeler, T., Warehouse for Bentley & Co's French Polish.

For a complete answer here one may need to refer to a French source - since French is the origin of the word. And I suspect France was, and probably may still be, the home of polish - as it is with perfume, wine and cheese.

If it's any help the French noun is cire (wood); cirage (shoes); páte (brass, silver). The verbs are cirer (shoes, furniture); astiquer (leather, car, glass) and polir (only for stone).

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  • That’s not really an answer, though, just a reiteration of the examples given in the question… Oct 22 '15 at 15:54
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    @JanusBahsJacquet: I upvoted this because it responds to one of the assumptions of the question: "Surely there would have been a need before then for a generic word, to include whatever sorts of materials were used for the purpose (wax, ash, rubbing pastes etc)." Apparently there is not such a word in Modern French, so it seems possible that there was not one in early Modern English either.
    – herisson
    Oct 24 '15 at 17:08
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From the Latin "polire", which becomes "pulire" in Italian; 3rd person singular conjugation is "pulisce", which is pronounced "poo-li-shay": sounds like "polish", doesn't it? The meaning is "to clean, or to perfect, or to refine".

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    The question is about precursors to the English noun "polish", not about the Italian verb "pulire."
    – herisson
    Oct 24 '15 at 16:41
  • My point is that the word is a migration from another Latin based language, the morphology probably has some variation, and an absolute date of entry into English as a noun is unlikely to be be resolved without competing theories (this question asks for a "fact" when a theory is the best response). Regarding the noun-verb difference, there are many examples of the Latin verb "polire" mutating into noun usage, in Italian as well as other languages.
    – g pape
    Oct 24 '15 at 17:02
  • Your info on the migration of "polish" is enlightening and applicable to the topic, but perhaps not what JHCL is looking for. Though you'd make it more relevant by mentioning "the Latin verb "polire" mutating into noun usage".
    – Ben
    Oct 24 '15 at 20:57

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