The bikini made its first public appearance on July 5, 1946, at a swimming pool in Paris. In the 66 years since then, the diminutive swimming costume has had an outsize impact on fashion trends and cultural norms. It’s also enriched our vocabulary in creative and unexpected ways.

Begin with "bikini" itself. Most of the world learned the word on July 1, 1946, when the United States detonated the first nuclear bomb above Bikini Atoll, a series of islands surrounding a lagoon in the South Pacific. By sheer coincidence, two Frenchmen were independently designing new two-piece swimsuits at the time. One of them, Jacques Heim, called his creation the "atom"; the other, Louis Réard — an automotive engineer who was running his mother's lingerie business — named his even smaller suit (which bared the navel and had a G-string back) the bikini. Réard couldn’t find a professional model willing to show off his suit, so he hired an exotic dancer from the Casino de Paris.

Heim’s "atom" design was the one embraced by beachgoers. But "bikini" was what they called it. The word — with its suitably small-sounding vowels and easy pronunciation — was uncommon and memorable, just like the suit. Its ripped-from-the-headlines topicality probably didn’t hurt, either. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary:

Various explanations for the swimsuit name have been suggested, none convincingly, the best being an analogy of the explosive force of the bomb and the impact of the bathing suit style on men’s libidos (cf. c.1900 British slang assassin "an ornamental bow worn on the female breast," so called because it was very "killing").

Within a few years, the bikini was populating not only the beaches and beauty pageants of Europe — the prudish United States was a tougher sell at first — but also the culture at large. The first movie with "bikini" in its title, Bikini Baby, was released by a British studio in 1951; a twist on the Lady Godiva story, it starred Stanley Holloway and Diana Dors. The following year, Brigitte Bardot made her film debut in The Girl in the Bikini (French title: Manina, La Fille sans Voiles). Americans finally capitulated in August 1960, when "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini," sung by Brian Hyland, reached #1 on the pop-music charts.

"Bikini" wasn’t just easy to rhyme. Thanks to a false yet irresistible theory about its etymology, it was also linguistically productive.

In Marshallese, a Micronesian language, bikini (or pikinni) may mean "the surface of coconuts." But Europeans and Americans who looked at the word saw a familiar Greek prefix, "bi-," meaning "two." It was easy to assume "bi-" referred to the bikini’s two pieces. And once you’d done that, you could coin, say, "monokini," the name for the revealing one-piece suit introduced by Austrian-born fashion designer Rudi Gernreich in 1964. Made of black wool knit, the monokini had two thin straps that exposed and framed the wearer’s breasts. More conceptual art than marketable swimwear, the monokini was a naming breakthrough: it was the first time "-kini" became a morpheme signifying "swimsuit." Twenty years later, Gernreich introduced another art suit, the pubikini, which had a window that revealed the wearer’s pubic area.

The pubikini was only slightly more scandalous than the trikini, introduced in 1967. As you might surmise, the "tri-" signified "three": the suit, according to a report in the Scottish Daily Mail, was "best described as a handkerchief and two small saucers" that "stick on with Velcro, the stuff which fastens at a touch." "If the trikini is three pieces, the bikini two and the monokini one" wrote New York Times language columnist William Safire in 1999, "when will we see the zerokini?" 

Eventually, "-kini" acquired enough independent meaning that it became detached from the concept of skimpiness. In 1985, swimsuit designer Anne Cole introduced a suit that combined a bikini-style bottom with a relatively demure, hip-length tank top. The company called it the "tankini," a descriptor that has endured. Or consider the full-coverage Burqini: a portmanteau of "burqa" and "bikini," it’s the registered trademark for a full-body suit — only the face and hands are revealed — introduced in 2007 by a Lebanese-Australian swimsuit designer to meet the needs of active Muslim women. The Burqini (known generically as the burkini or the veilkini) was popularized by a non-Muslim, the British celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, who told reporters she wore the garment to prevent sunburn. Also innocent (and also a trademark): Babi-kini, a U.S. company that makes wee swimsuits for infants and toddlers.

We have the movies to thank for a couple of kinis: the slinglike, neon-green "mankini" worn by Sasha Baron-Cohen in the 2006 mockumentary Borat; and the Catholic-hierarchy-offending "nunkini" worn by Kate Upton in The Three Stooges, released earlier this year. When self-described "curvy girl" Gabi Gregg published photos of herself on her fashion blog in April, she titled the post "Fatkini 2012"; the coinage was swiftly picked up by the media, which mostly applauded Gregg for her self-assurance.

"Bikini" also lends itself to compound forms: bikini briefs are low-cut underwear; a bikini wax removes hair at the bikini line; women’s magazines nag their readers to get bikini-ready so they can have a bikini body. On the children’s cartoon show "SpongeBob SquarePants," the characters make their home in the underwater city of Bikini Bottom.

"-kini" is such a successful signifier for "swimwear" that you can delete the "k" and still send the right message. Thus "skirtini" — like a tankini, but with a skirted bottom — and "bandini," a strapless (bandeau) top with a bikini bottom. It doesn’t hurt that "-ini" suggests an Italian diminutive suffix, as in linguini (literally "little tongues").

In the notoriously fickle world of fashion, the bikini has been astonishingly long-lived. But the tide may be turning. In London this summer, women competing in beach volleyball will be allowed to wear shorts and sleeved shirts instead of the bikinis that had been mandatory since the sport’s debut in 1993. (The international board governing the sport made the accommodation out of respect "for cultural and religious requirements.") And at least in the U.S., women are welcoming covered-up, retro-look swimsuits, reports the Wall Street Journal’s Christina Binkley, that "hark back to the relatively chaste looks of Hollywood’s heyday." That may mean "bye-bye, bikini," as Binkley’s headline puts it, but it’ll be harder to bid farewell to the productive -kini suffix. Will next summer bring us the primkini, the cloakini, and the modestini?

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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday June 21st 2012, 11:49 AM
Comment by: Margaret M. (Nashville, TN)
In response to buy the question, there is a company in Ann Arbor, MI which provides the Veilkini, a swimwear rendition similar to the Burqini.
Thursday June 21st 2012, 11:52 AM
Comment by: Margaret M. (Nashville, TN)
That should have been "in response to your final question..."
Thursday June 21st 2012, 12:03 PM
Comment by: Timothy O.
A quibble: You say, "The bikini made its first public appearance on July 5, 1946 ... " I believe you will find a virtually identical swimsuit in the wall decorations found at Pompeii.
Thursday June 21st 2012, 12:32 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
@Timothy O.: Right--I should have said "the modern bikini." I included a more extensive history of bikinis in a post I wrote in 2008 for my blog.
Saturday June 23rd 2012, 5:37 AM
Comment by: Victor G. (Vancouver Canada)
Is there a distinction between nuclear bomb and atomic bomb? Because, of course, it's well known that the first atomic bomb was detonated at Alamagordo, New Mexico in 1945.
Monday June 25th 2012, 5:40 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
VictorG, yes -- an atomic bomb works by fission (splitting atoms), and a nuclear bomb works by fusion (combining them, which is the source of the sun's energy). The Bikini test was indeed the first man-made nuclear explosion. It obliterated the atoll after which the swimsuit was named, as it happens.

Nancy, this is an impressive piece of etymological research. I do have to note that while "women are welcoming covered-up, retro-look swimsuits," that does not apply to (e.g.) teenaged girls, of which we have a couple in the house. In that demographic, the bikini is still going strong -- and indeed, the rule remains that the skimpier, the better. :-)
Thursday July 19th 2012, 9:09 AM
Comment by: Rob W. (Paramus, NJ)
Plus, "bikini" gave us the fifth out of six vowels that fill the pattern: -*-*-* (where a unique vowel stands in for the asterisk) in a non-capitalized word. Hence BANANA, SERENE, BIKINI, ROCOCO, and SYZYGY. I'm afraid that for the letter U, we have to rely on John Sununu.

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