manila

I’m sure you’ve sometimes had to mail an envelope, say for some abecedarian endeavour, perhaps an essay on Monet (or something for money), and you wanted something plain vanilla – you wouldn’t send your precious words in the buff, but you would send them in the buff envelope, a ten-by-twelve item roughly the colour of skin in the Pacific Rim. What do you use? A manila envelope, of course.

And then lick it to seal it. Is it yummy, the glue on your manila envelope? The word manila, with its two nasals and a licking liquid, does have a certain deliciousness, no doubt abetted by its ice cream overtones. But why manila? Why name it with this Philippine word with its whiffs of thrilla and Manilow? What about this brown paper makes the place name tag along?

Well, first off, the place name’s not a tag-along; it’s Tagalog. (The stress is on the second syllable there, by the way.) Manila is from may nila, “there are water lilies.” Which may fit your impressionist disquisition but hardly goes to explain the enveloping connection. For that, we have another thread to follow.

The thread in question is made of the abacá plant. (No, the thread is not called dabra.) It’s a relative of the banana, and one of the main places it’s grown is around Manila. Although it’s not hemp, ropes made of it came to be called Manila hemp. And the sturdy, strong, light-brown paper made from Manila hemp was called Manila paper. Such a sturdy paper is good for enduring the myriad insults of postal service, and so envelopes of it became popular.

But you know how it is… if there’s something good that’s popular, someone will make a cheap knock-off. Now manila envelopes (note how the name has become lower-cased as it’s lost its thread) are just whatever brown paper the makers feel like using. And instead of protecting your precious papers with a virtual lamina of manila paper, you’re stuffing them in a buff bluffer.

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