Words in the News


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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

A news story this week reported that a project in Brighton called The Waste House is testing discarded duvets as an insulating material. The house, which is the brainchild of architect Duncan Baker-Brown, looks like an ordinary house but is built almost entirely from waste recovered from houses and construction sites. Its exterior walls are clad with carpet tiles, with the waterproof rubber backing facing outwards, and researchers are testing a number of different non-recyclable scrap materials to fill its hollow walls, including floppy discs, audio cassette cases, the discarded legs of denim jeans and, yes, duvets. Brighton is a student city and with household items like duvets with synthetic fillings being available at rock-bottom prices, tens of thousands are discarded every year when the students move out of their accommodation. They can’t be recycled and so mostly go into landfill or incinerators.

The duvet, which is also known as a continental quilt in the UK, a doona in Australia, a downie in Scotland and a comforter in the US, is a relatively recent arrival in this country. When I was growing up they were almost unknown: beds were covered with sheets and blankets, with an eiderdown on top if it was particularly cold. The whole lot was covered with a bedspread, often made out of candlewick, which is another thing you don’t often see these days. Blankets were made of wool, sheets of cotton, eiderdowns were, as their name suggests, filled with down, and all were expected to last a lifetime, or at least several decades. The main difference between a duvet and other forms of down-filled bed cover is that the duvet is used with a removable washable cover and thus can be used without a top bed sheet.

Duvet comes from the French word for down, ‘duvet’, and has been around in English since the mid 18th century with the meaning of a quilt stuffed with down. Citations in the OED show, however, that the word only became part of common usage around 1970, presumably because by that time large numbers of Brits were travelling abroad, encountering this form of bedding, and deciding that it was a lot more convenient than sheets and blankets. The use of the term duvet rather than continental quilt is probably also down to convenience: continental quilt is a bit of a mouthful, while quilt on its own usually refers to a bed cover made of several layers of cloth, often with an attractive pattern.

At this time of year when the weather has turned chilly and coughs and colds are rife, many might be tempted to sneak a duvet day. This is simply a day when you stay at home instead of going to school or work, because you are feeling ill or tired.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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