Patent/Patently/Patent Leather: A clear and obvious etymological connexion

I am currently studying Intellectual Property law, so I tend to have patents on the brain. And today, my good friend The Cool Chick and I both realised that whenever we say “well that’s patently obvious”* (which is quite often), we are both visited by a mental image of shiny patent leather shoes. Being kindred etymology fanatics, we then decided that it would be particularly awesome if all three words shared a common derivation… and indeed they do!

[ click screenclips for full detail, while giving yet another appreciative round of applause for the Oxford English Dictionary]


Where it all begins.

Lying open, unobstructed, readily accessible, obvious.

Circa 13th century, from the Latin patere (to lay open), then Littera Patens — meaning “open letter”— via the Anglo-French lettre patente.

In law, when one applies for the registration of a patent in relation to a process, one discloses all the material details for public inspection, in return for a time-limited monopoly (the letters patent) preventing others from using said process. Once that monopoly lapses, the use of said process is thereafter unobstructed: readily accessible and open to the public. (Wikipedia has a satisfactory layman’s summation).


Knowing the origin of ‘patent’, the adjective-to-adverb process is plain for all to see. Patently obvious, even….

Patent leather

Seth Boyden did not invent patent leather, but he did invent the now-common process that gave leather a shiny, ultra-gloss finish and sturdy form, and he certainly did patent it. [[Edit: Boyden did not formally patent his process — thank you, kind commenter — but the process associated with his name is the one that became cemented in footwear history.]] Add immediate popularity, and the subsequent need for a shorthand appellation, and it was only a matter of time before people started referring to it as patented/patent leather.

From all the above, I think it is clearly, unobstructedly, openly, publicly obvious why both The Cool Chick and I associate blatancy with fashion accessories (and vice versa). And, as the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland would say, the moral to THAT story is: always trust an etymological hunch.

* Yes, it’s a tautology.


6 thoughts on “Patent/Patently/Patent Leather: A clear and obvious etymological connexion”

    1. Thanks; a friend’s handbag sparked much discussion along these lines last night. I’m pretty sure versions of the shinification process were patented, in England in the 20 years before Boyd. Also, as far as I can tell Boyd’s process is now uncommon, although it did popularize and dominate for a long time.

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