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.


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