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Friday, June 26, 2009


Let's say you just watched Простоквашино (the one where Dyadya Fyodor ditches his parents at the train station) for the umpteenth time and are wondering where the word гуталин (goo-ta-LEEN, "shoe polish") came from.

Sounds German, right?

So you pop over to the Russian Wikipedia to get the lay of the land. You find out that:
A) гуталин was invented in France during the reign of Charles II (no reference)
B) гуталин was made of eggs mixed with ashes and either vinegar or beer (again no reference)
C) the word гуталин comes from the Mongol word for shoes - "gutal" (who needs references, anyway??)

Never, never put your faith in the Russian Wikipedia. The English WP has a whole lot more people inputting on the articles, and even so you can run into impressionistic articles. But the Russian Wikipedia is like a phone book put together by a deaf insane asylum patient ("Snip, snip, what fun! Cutting and pasting little bits of information from around the web into this nice template! The Mongol word for shoes! Delightful!")

Shutting the door on all the noisy RWP fun, you think of all the possible spellings for goutaline/gouthalene/guttaline and search Google books.

Guttaline returns a snippet of an article in an 1892 edition of "Electrical Engineer," where the following intriguing definition is given:

"Guttaline - A new preparation for the purpose of replacing indiarubber and guttapercha, has been brought out and protected by MM. Worms and Zwierchowski. To a quantity of Manila gum tempered with benezene is added 5 per cent. of Auvergne bitumen, also mixed with benzene..."

That reference to gutta percha caught my eye as being possibly relevant. These two guys invented a replacement for a natural material and patented it with a name that reminded people of that natural material.

Not as interesting as a medieval Mongol-French cultural exchange on the subject of shoe polish, but somehow more convincing. I am still very interested in this word and will keep digging...

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