What's in a Word? Bikini

by John Bemelmans Marciano

Grin and bare it. Photo: Courtesy of Aulo Bernini.

bi•ki•ni n. A two-piece swimsuit of immoderate proportions; the more immoderate, the better.

The summer of 1946 brought two new things to the beach: one, atomic testing in the South Pacific; two, scandalously scanty swimwear.

With joyous liberation in the air and Europeans hitting the plages and spiagge for something other than military operations, a couple of French designers had it in their mind to produce a racier version of the two-piece bathing suit. First came Jacques Heim, who designed what he claimed to be the world's smallest swimsuit and dubbed it the Atom. Next was Louis Réard, an auto engineer who made his living running his mom's lingerie shop. Réard's swimsuit was really tiny/skimpier than most of the lingerie he sold. The crucial difference was that, while Heim's Atom, like its dowdier predecessors, kept the navel tucked away out of sight, in Réard's work the wearer's belly button was gloriously exposed.

Réard unveiled his creation in Paris on July 5, hiring a stripper to show it off, as no professional model was willing to appear so naked in public. Réard proclaimed his swimsuit the bikini. American nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll had begun a few days earlier and captured the world's attention, and just in case anyone was missing the point of the sensation he wanted to create, Réard's two-piece suit was printed with images of newspaper type. Wishful thinking, wish fulfilled. As far as the sensation went, anyway; as for it becoming a popular fashion, the bikini was a dud. It took until the 1960s, when people began feeling liberated in a different way, for navels to be regularly and freely expressed in public.

Réard would go to his grave feeling cheated, having made no money off his creation; the Bikini Atollers, on the other hand, were paid a fortune but it gave them little solace. The U.S. government had asked the Atollers, for the good of mankind, to take a little vacation while the military ran some important experiments on their land. The Atollers, who numbered fewer than two hundred, got shuttled around the Marshalls while their islands got nuked into a radioactive wasteland; those islands, that is, that weren't vaporized entirely during America's one and only hydrogen bomb test, which had an impactive force twelve hundred times as powerful as the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. For its remarkably abominable behavior toward the Bikini Atollers-who, beyond losing their home, suffered radiation poisoning-the American government eventually coughed up $150 million in reparations.

This entry is excerpted from Toponymity: An Atlas of Words, by John Bemelmans Marciano, and is reprinted here with permission.