What is the Meaning of “Cottoned On”?

To “cotton on” to something is a phrase that originates somewhere from the end of the late 17th century to the Industrial era in the early nineteenth century. The typical usage of “cotton on” is used to describe when someone realizes or understands something about a situation.

In areas of the former British Empire or the United Kingdom, particularly New Zealand and Australia, the term “cotton on” also meant to get friendly with someone. In the American South where cotton was king before the Civil War, the expression evolved to refer to “take a liking to someone”.

The Meaning of the Phrase

There are two meanings for the phrase, depending on whether the speaker is in an American or British-speaking context. The first usage means to come to understand something. The second meaning refers to liking someone or sticking to them in a friendly way.

In 1869, John Camden’s A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words clearly identified the colloquial phrase’s derivation as “to like, adhere to, or agree with any person, ‘to cotton on to a man,’ or fancy him, literally, to stick to him as cotton would”.

The Origin of the Phrase

This phrase has murky beginnings. According to some linguistic experts, the “friendly” or “liking” meaning for “to cotton on” predates the version for understanding.

In 1648, a pamphlet called Mercurius Elenctius circulated at the height of the English Civil War. Written by Sir George Wharton, a poet, and royalist soldier, the pamphlet mocked the Roundhead Parliament. It also contained what is likely the earliest instance of the phrase “to cotton on”. Spelled “cotten” in the seventeenth century, Wharton used the phrase as a verb to refer to “making friendly advances” to someone.

It is unclear whether Wharton created this phrase or if it already existed. It is also unclear whether this idea came from cotton’s annoying habit of sticking to objects when wet or if it was a subtle allusion to cotton-clad bodies close together during a romantic courtship.

In fact, the most common usage of the phrase involved “cottoning” during a courtship context instead of referring to coming to an understanding.

The phrase cropped up in literary contexts as well. For example, in William Congreave’s 1695 comedy play, Love for Love, a character admitted that they loved to see “’em hug and cotton together, like Down upon a Thistle”.

From the late seventeenth century onwards, people scattered around the British Empire used the term to refer to how individuals stick like cotton to people or ideas. By the early twentieth century, the phrase began to mean “to understand something”.