"fine, minute, loose, uncompacted particles," c. 1300, poudre, "ash, cinders; dust of the earth;" early 14c. of any pulverized substance; from Old French poudre "dust, powder; ashes; powdered substance" (13c.), earlier pouldre (11c.), from Latin pulverem (nominative pulvis) "dust, powder" (source also of Spanish polvo, Italian polve; see pulverize).
The insertion of the unetymological -d- was common in French (compare meddle, tender (adj.), remainder). German has it as a doublet; Puder via French and Pulver from Latin. From mid-14c. specifically as "medicinal powder;" specialized sense of "gunpowder" is from late 14c. In the sense "powdered cosmetic," it is recorded from 1570s.
Powder keg "small barrel for holding gunpowder" is by 1820; the figurative sense ("something likely to explode easily") is by 1895. Powder room, euphemistic for "women's lavatory," is attested from 1936. Earlier it meant "place where gunpowder is stored on a warship" (1620s). Powder monkey "boy employed on ships to carry powder from the magazines to the guns" is from 1680s. Powder blue (1650s) was smalt used in laundering; as a color name from 1894.
The phrase take a powder "scram, vanish," is from 1920; it was a common phrase as a doctor's instruction, so perhaps the notion is of taking a laxative medicine or a sleeping powder, with the result that one has to leave in a hurry (or, on another guess, from a magician's magical powder, which makes things disappear).
Avis dropped an exhausted little heap onto her aunt's bed. She put her hand over her heart and said piteously, "Oh, Aunt Joyce, I mustn't ever do that again. My heart's going awful fast. I shall have to take a powder. Wasn't it fun though-" Avis' dark eyes flashed. [from "The Evolution of Avis" in The Connecticut School Journal, Jan. 9, 1902]
When the wife of your breast has confessed she has drest
On just triple the sum you allowed her,
And has run up long bills for her frocks and her frills—
Take a powder, my friend, take a powder.
[from "The Panacaea," in Punch, Dec. 14, 1901]
Powder in the wind (c. 1300, meaning powdered spices) was a Middle English image of something highly valued but flawed in some way that renders it impermanent or doomed to loss (of virtues without humility, etc.).
c. 1300, poudren, "to put or sprinkle powder on;" late 14c., "to make into powder," from Old French poudrer "to pound, crush to powder; strew, scatter," from poudre (see powder (n.)). Specifically as "to whiten cosmetically by some application of white material in powder form" is from 1590s. Related: Powdered; powdering.
updated on October 01, 2020
Dictionary entries near powder