gold, silver, & bronze

Fast Mash

  • Gold is from the Proto-Indo-European *ghel-, meaning, variously, “yellow,” “bright,” “shining,” “green,” “blue,” and “gray”; derivatives include chlorine, clean, and the family of gl- words like glass and glance
  • From the Old English siolforsilver’s ultimate origin is unknown, perhaps from the Akkadian sarapu (to smelt)
  • Bronze may be from the Persian birinj (copper) and may be connected to the Latin aes Brundusinium, referring to bronze mirrors made in Brindisi, Italy
  • The Indo-European *arg- (bright, shining) is the origin of Romance words for “silver” (e.g., argent) and *aus– for “gold” (e.g., aureate)

In Ancient Greece, victorious Olympians were crowned with olive wreathes. Upon the Olympics’ reinstitution in 1896, winners were still greeted with this symbolic prize, but also with silver medals. It wasn’t until the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri, though, that the Games issued gold, silver, and bronze medals for its top-three competitors.

Let’s bite into goldsilver, and bronze to check out what they’re made of.

Gold

All that glitters may be gold, etymologically speaking. Unchanged in form from the Old English, gold is from the Proto-Germanic *gulth- and Proto-Indo-European *ghel-, meaning “yellow.” This root could also mean “bright” or “shining.” And, apparently, all that glitters can be “green,” “blue,” and “gray,” for *ghel– so named bright colors and objects.

This root *ghel– is definitely worth its weight in etymological gold, though, for it parented the Greek khloros, “pale green,” giving English everything from chlorine and chlorophyll to the name Chloe. It also parented the Germanic clean and clear. In fact, its Germanic kin are many, as Shipley cites: glare, glassglaze, gloss, gleaming, glow, glower, glad, and glee. To these we might add gleamglitterglint, glimpseglance, among yet others, all featuring the initial cluster gl-.

Does this gl– mean something? The topic is contentious.

Phonesthemes

Linguists call this gl- a “phonestheme,” an example of sound symbolism, the idea that certain sounds inherently have a meaning. Onomatopoeia might be familiar. The cow moos, the bee buzzesthe doorbell ding-dongs. These are all words that imitate or echo what they are naming. The sound symbolizes its meaning.

But gl- is a little more interesting. It has no meaning in and of itself. Gl- on its own cannot be said to mean anything in the way that “cat,” “throw,” or “rumor” do. Or in the way that “pre-” or “post-” or “-ly” or “-hood” do. But it does appear in a family of words whose meanings are all connected–here, through a common sense of “shiny,” “bright,” “light,” “dealing with vision,” or what have you. Further, if you clip off the gl-, you aren’t left with a meaningful unit of sound. Take glitter or glance. If I take of the gl-, I am left with -itter and -ance, which don’t mean anything. (More technically, they aren’t morphemes.) Unlike when I undo the “un-” in “undo” or lob off the “-er” in “faster”: do and fast have meaning.

Words beginning with fl– (flow, fly, flutter. flurry), sl- (slide, slippery, slick, slither), and sn– (snore, sniffle, sneeze, snout) also display this phonesthemic property.

So, does gl– suggest the shiny or visual properties that its word family shares? Does fl– imply flying, sn– various nasal business? Globe, flower, and snow also feature their respective consonant clusters but don’t really belong in their respective phonesthemic families. The phenomenon is not absolute. Nothing is language is. But, given the data, it’s hard to deny that there is some level of truth to this sound symbolism.

Gold’s chemical symbol, Au, is taken from the Latin aurum, meaning “gold.” It’s from a Proto-Indo-European root, *ausprobably meaning “to shine.” From this root, Latin got aes and Old English ar, which could both mean, well, “copper,” “bronze,” and “brass.”

Silver

The name for this runner-up comes from the Old English siolfor or seolfor. (In Old English, letter sounded much like our v.) We can trace the Old English back to the Old Norse, silfr and reconstruct a Proto-Germanic *silubr-. From here, we don’t really know. Perhaps silver is all the more precious for it. Russian has serebo and Lithuanian has sidabras, so etymologists speculate a Balto-Slavic or Asian origin. Ernest Klein offered the Akkadian sarpu, refined “silver,” from sarapu, “to smelt.”

The Indo-European root for silver is reflected in silver’s chemical name, Ag, from Latin’s silver equivalent, argentum. Like *ghel– and *aus-, argentum has *arg-, “to shine,” though often with a especial reference to “white.” The Argonauts were the sailors of the ship, the Argos, lead by Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece. In Greek, argos means “swift,” related to that root for “shining” and “bright.”

Bronze

Nowadays, bronze may evoke being tan before being in third place. It turns out, though, that the alloy may have more in common with vanity–um, I mean skin cancer, er, social constructions of beauty, uh, tanning–than we might think.

Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, and comes to English, via French and Italian, from the Medieval Latin bronzium and its variant brundium. From here, the etymology is itself something of an alloy. As Partridge maintains, bronze is ultimately mined from the Persian birindj (other variants include birinj or pirinj), meaning “copper,” “for the alloy came to Europe from the East.” Skeat cites the Roman historian Pliny, whose writes of aes Brundusinium, referring to the Italian town, Brindisi, whose Latin name was Brundisium, “where bronze mirrors were made.” Aes could mean “copper,” “brass,” “bronze” and the various objects made from them include money, armor, and trumpets. Perhaps you’ll look extra bronzed in one of those mirrors.

The chemical symbol for bronze is…Oh, you don’t remember it? Good. There isn’t one. Just making sure you’re awake.

Etruscan bronze mirror, 3rd-2nd c. BC; image courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Bright, Shiny Objects

*Ghel-, *aus-, *arg-: some of our most precious treasures–an Olympic medal, say, awarding a once-in-a-lifetime performance against the most elite competition following years of training and sacrifice–come down to “bright” and “shiny” objects. That’s a bit glib, of course, as metallurgy certainly had its hand in advancing civilization. But perhaps not too glib, for might not these roots begin in that most fundamentally human act–the act of curiosity, marveling at an object glittering in a riverbed or on the wall of a cave, brighter and shinier than the unremarkable dirt and rock, tinkering and tooling and experimenting with them until it is shaped into something new, an instrument of culture? It may not take much to get our attention, but we sure can do a whole lot with it.

m ∫ r ∫

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39 thoughts on “gold, silver, & bronze

  1. I’ve never understood why people place so much value in gold. It looks nice in jewelry, but so do a lot of other things. Anyway, word origins don’t seem to shed any light on why it’s so valuable. Maybe just because it’s shiny and lustrous.

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    1. Wasn’t it once upon a time used as $? Salt was too ..hence the term “salt of the earth” . Both gold & salt are incessantly referred to in the Bible & all sorts of other ancient literature. Their reputation these days for such uttermost importance appears a bit of a throwback to then.

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      1. Isn’t all money ultimately what we call a fetish in its general sense? There’s no inherent value to it other than what we assign to it, historically, magically, culturally, etc.

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      2. Money serves a purpose. It facilitates commerce. If I make bricks, and there is no system of money, I have to transport bricks to the market and search out others who will trade their products for my bricks. It’s a very cumbersome way to make a living. By agreeing on one form of money, I can sell my bricks and use the money to get other products I need. So it’s not just a fetish. It’s a measure of confidence. Gold is easily malleable and can be formed into shapes (cups, crowns, chalices), and has luster. We tend to value things with luster (beautiful people, jewels, shiny metals – aluminum was once pricier than gold). So do “lust” and “luster” share a common root? Maybe that would offer some clue as to the humankind’s long fascination with gold.

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      3. I suppose we should search for whether or not it is a cultural universal to value precious, natural things (gold, turquoise, etc.) and use its possession for complex, organized cultural transactions or rituals. Great questions on “lust” v. “luster.” Unchanged from its Old English form, “lust” looks longingly back to a Proto-Indo-European *las- (eager, wanton; “lascivious” is cognate) while “luster” gets its shine ultimate from Latin’s “lux,” meaning light.

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  2. Yay! for etymology! 🙂 “Ghel-” meaning “yellow” in Proto-Indo-European makes perfect sense to me as a Norwegian. Yellow is “gul” in my language and gold is “gull”.

    Very interesting blog, keep up the good work!

    – Kind regards,
    K.O.B

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  3. very well work done…keep going…i liked it…its nice…as am a new blogger in this world and i wrote just 1 blog (story) (http://mindtechnorms.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/when-god-granted-tittus-to-go-to-earth-for-1-day-part-i/) and unable to find my viewer as like you, can u please help me by reading my 1st blog what wrong with my writing…is really something wrong with my writing or am just expecting too early…your helpful comments will really inspire me… and please follow me…

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  4. Fascinating! The Irish for gold is ór but I presume our word for bright, geal (pr gyal) is linked to the root of gold. Our word for silver is nearly the same as the Latin, airgead.

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    1. Surely “ór” is cognate to the Old English “ar,” which could mean “brass, bronze, copper,” from that PIE *aus-, origin of the Latin term for gold and English’s own “ore.” Consider continental Celtic, this would make sense.

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      1. Ah, I never made the connection with ore, but that figures. I have a book by Mallory here and I should really go through it and learn something about the origins of Celtic and its relations to the other Indo-European languages. Go raibh maith agat as an eolas! (Thanks for the information!)

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  5. Mi è piaciuta questa ricerca etimologica, che spiega le origini dei nomi oro, argento e bronzo, i tre metalli conosciuti nell’antichità. E’ da rilevare anche qui che la loro derivazione è orientale.

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  6. Nice post! I really like reading and hearing about etymology of words. I like the part about phonesthemes, never knew that! My language is not in Indo-European language family, and now I’m wondering where the words for gold, silver, and bronze in my language come from (Google didn’t know 😦 )

    Thanks for sharing!

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