The famous sailor Captain John Smith wrote (OED): “Wee did hang an awning (which is an old saile) to… trees to shadow us from the Sunne” (1624) and “A trar-pawling; or yawning” (1626)...So the tarred covering cloth would probably be similar to an "oilskin" used by sailors for waterproof clothing. Wikipedia suggests that the use of "tars" to refer to sailors derives from their association with tarpaulins.
Tarpaulin... “means tarred pauling or tarred palling; a palling is a covering, from the verb pall, to cover.” ... tarpaulin seems to have been tarred, and the OED gives a 1725 citation to this effect. Equating pallin(g) with paulin is more problematic... suggested that paulin is the same word as Middle English palyoun “canopy.” Its cognate in all the continental Scandinavian languages is paulun, a popular variant of pavilion. Low German exhibits nearly the same form. Given this reconstruction, tarpaulin is half-English and half-Scandinavian (or German, though more likely Scandinavian).
06 November 2012
Tarpaulins used to be tarred
This past week I quite literally wore out a tarpaulin, dragging hardwood mulch from its dump pile to a destination a hundred yards away. While doing so, I wondered about the etymology of the word, and found the answer in a column at the Oxford University Press blog which also discusses the related "awning."