This word was borrowed from Arabic due to a slight misunderstanding. The old French word was materas, taken from the Italian materasso, the same word that gave English ‘mattress’, German matratze, Polish materac and so on. All these words come originally from the Arabic matrah, derived from the verb taraha, which means ‘to throw down’1.
I say a slight misunderstanding because matrah didn’t originally denote a mattress or, for that matter, any piece of furniture at all, but rather a place. Humble folk used to live in one-room houses. The room served as a living room by day and a bedroom by night. They kept thin mattresses hidden away in a niche, and when it was time to go to sleep, everyone threw these down on the ground, rolled them out and stretched out in their respective spots.
In spoken Lebanese Arabic, this portable ‘bed’ was called a farsheh. In some cases, it was no more than a mat, in which case it was known as a hassireh. But since Arabic in both its spoken and literary forms is, like many other languages, a precise instrument, the word matrah specifically denoted the spot where each family member laid down his or her bedding. One Egyptian song by the famous singer Muhammad Abdel Wahhab puts it this way: “In the spot were slumber comes to my eyes, I sleep with a serene spirit.” The word ‘spot’ here is, in the original Arabic, matrah.
The word’s meaning gradually grew broader. In Lebanon and various other Arab countries, matrah no longer denotes only the place where one sleeps. Arabic speakers use the word matrah in expressions such as ‘the place where I’m going’, ‘the spot where it hurts’ and ‘the spot where I’m parking’. They also use it to refer to specific passages in a book or film.
In French, the word went in another direction. It came to mean not a place, but a quilted or padded [matelassé in French] object. It can mean a thick wad of folding money, a stuffed wallet, a fortune. Moreover, French speakers say that a protective layer ‘acts as a mattress’ [fait matelas] – referring, for example, to the layer of fat that protects a bear from the polar cold. This idea of protection can be found in other European languages, too. In English, for instance, the word ‘mattress’ is used to denote the traditional mat used to shore up a dyke and slow erosion of its surface.
For myself, I remain partial to the first meaning, and I try to imagine the moment when, around the time of the crusades, Europeans first discovered the pleasure of sleeping comfortably on a soft mattress, Arab-style. Why else would they have needed to borrow the word?
- AUTHOR’S NOTE: The literal translation of taraha is ‘he threw’ rather than ‘to throw’, but since this form in Arabic verbs is the equivalent of the infinitive, I felt it was more appropriate to translate it here as ‘to throw’. [↩]