I love tinsel. It’s so glittery and cheerful and colourful. It’s instant Christmas decoration that you can pull out of a bag and strew around the room and it immediately feels more like December.
Tinsel seems like a fairly recent invention, and in its current form, it is. Its history, though, goes back five hundred years to the very fine strands of hammered silver used in Nuremberg, Germany, in the early 1600s. At first, it was used more often to decorate sculptures or statues than trees., but it’s ability to sparkle and magnify the light from the candles used to illuminate Christmas trees caused its popularity to grow.
Flawed by both brittleness and tarnish, early types of tinsel were nowhere near as hardy or long-lasting as what we have now. Over time, various other tinsel-like decorations were made using various different shiny or sparkly materials: silver or gold thread, or pieces of shiny fabric, and foil made from lead, copper or aluminium. During the 20th century, the advent of plastics made production of what we now know as tinsel cheaper and easier, while the dangers of other more flammable or toxic materials caused them to decrease in popularity.
The word tinsel dates back to the mid-1400s when it was used to describe cloth with gold or silver thread woven through it.
It is this sense of the word that is used by Shakespeare in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ where Margaret describe’s Hero’s fine wedding gown as being enhanced with a “bluish tinsel”.
The word came from Old French estencele, or estincelle — the es- was not pronounced– which meant ‘sparkle’ or ‘spangle’. From the 1590s onwards, tinsel was the name given to very thin sheets, strips or strands of shiny metal or fabric. This Old French word is related to the Latin word scintilla meaning ‘spark’ , which in turn most likely came from the PIE roots*ski-nto, from which English also gets ‘shine’ and ‘scintillate’. It is also related to ‘stencil’.
By the mid 17th century, tinsel was also used in a non-literal sense to mean something showy or shiny, but not with any real value.
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