late 14c., "a table napkin, small square piece of cloth used to wipe the lips and hands and protect the clothes at table," a diminutive of nape "a tablecloth" (from Old French nape "tablecloth, cloth cover, towel," from Latin mappa; see map (n.)) + Middle English -kin "little." No longer felt as a diminutive. The Old French diminutive was naperon (see apron). The shift of Latin -m- to -n- was a tendency in Old French (conter from computare, printemps from primum, natte "mat, matting," from matta). Middle English also had naperie "linen objects; sheets, tablecloths, napkins, etc.;" also, "place where the linens are kept." Napkin-ring is from 1680s.
updated on April 10, 2019