The chaos of “gas”

We’ve been sick with the word gas lately.

First, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad horrifically attacked, not for the first time, his own people with chemical weapons, likely sarin gas. Then, he “fake-newsed” the horrific act by calling it a fabrication. Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer—bizarrely, perversely—told reporters Hitler never gassed his people like Assad did before apologizing for his profoundly wrong statement.

It’s hard to make sense of this all, so—as this blog does in its own meager way—let’s try to make sense of it with the etymology of the word gas

Into the void

A portrait of van Helmont. (Encyclopædia Britannica)


We can thank Flemish chemist and physician Jan Baptist van Helmont (1577-1644) for the word gas. In one experiment, he was burning charcoal to study its emissions. He remarked, originally in Latin:

This spirit, hitherto unknown, which can be neither be contained in vessels nor reduced to a visible body, I call by a new name, gas.

For van Helmont, though, gas was a sort of volatile, watery essence of a material object. His thinking may have well been influenced by the Swiss-German polymath Paracelsus (1493-1541), who explored the occult and alchemy in addition to some of his pioneering science. Paracelsus described a chaos, which he saw as the natural element of gnome spirits, just as air, for him, was the element humans moved through.

Open wide?

Both van Helmont and Paracelsus, then, were probably drawing from the Greek root of our word chaos: khaos (χάος). The Greek khaos had some heavy meanings: “the primordial state of existence,” “the expanse,” “infinite space,” “infinite darkness,” “abyss.” Paracelsus and van Helmont appear to be drawing on the “primordial space” sense of khaos.

English itself borrowed chaos, first meaning a “gaping void,” in the late 1300s. The term evolved to its modern sense of “utter confusion” in the 1600s, as chaos was used for the “orderless” void before the creation in Christian theology. It was also used in Book of Genesis in the Vulgate, an important early Latin translation of the Bible.

In Greek, khaos is related the verb “to yawn.” Think “gaping” mouth. Indeed, Indo-European scholars root it in *gheu-, “yawn” or “gape,” also the source of the English’s mouth-y gums, apparently.

Giving off other airs   

Back to gas, historical linguists, furthering the connection between van Helmont’s gas and the Greek khaos, note that the sound of the g in Dutch is similar to the kh is khaos. It’s a guttural sound, a bit like the ch in the Scottish loch.

Van Helmont may have also had the Dutch word geest (“spirit” or “ghost,” the latter a cognate), given some of his occult leanings and his study of deadly gases in mines, churchyards, wells, and other dank, dark places. There are other potential influences, too, include Dutch terms related to “fermentation.”

Van Helmont also created a word blas, for a sort of elemental, vital “motion” that governed matter and beings. This one did not catch on. But gas? As philologist Ernest Weekley keenly observes: “The success of this artificial word is unique.”

Expanse, expanding 

While van Helmont may not have coined gas in the proper sense of the word, he, and his ground-breaking, if at times mystical, work in chemistry, did properly introduce gas to science and our broader vocabulary.

The modern scientific definition of gas emerges by 1779 and started to be applied to various fuels by the end of that century. Flatulent gas is released by the late 1800s. Poison gas —no gas, in one of the many slang uses of the word—is by 1900, and alas, has not gone away.  And its probable origin—the Greek-rooted chaos—feels all too fitting for these times.

m ∫ r ∫


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