Word of the Day


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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter


long thin pieces of shiny paper used as a Christmas decoration

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

Origin and usage

The noun tinsel started life as an adjective referring to a way of making cloth sparkle by interweaving or overlaying it with gold or silver. This meaning dates from the beginning of the 16th century, but within a couple of decades the word was being used as a noun to refer to the cloth itself. Tinsel then came to be used to refer to decorations made of gold, silver or other metals. The term came via Old French from the Latin ‘scintilla’ meaning ‘spark’.


As well as the long shiny strands used as Christmas decorations, tinsel can be used to refer to something that seems attractive but is not valuable or important. This meaning has itself been extended to encompass the home of glamour and show, Hollywood, which is sometimes referred to humorously (or disparagingly) as Tinseltown. This use is surprisingly recent, being first recorded in the 1970s, when the glory days of Hollywood had passed; a bit like the history of tinsel itself as it evolved over the centuries from cloth made with gold and silver to cheap and cheerful sparkling strands used to decorate Christmas trees.


“Strip the phony tinsel off Hollywood and you’ll find the real tinsel underneath.”
(Oscar Levant)

Related words

fairy lights, holly, bauble

Browse related words in the Macmillan Thesaurus.

About the author

Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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