The etymological elements of “arsenic”

Researchers concluded this week that nearly 60 million people in Pakistan are at risk of drinking water with “alarmingly high” levels of arsenic, the contamination leaching into groundwater from rock.

The poisonous qualities of arsenic, a semi-metal, and its various compounds have long been known to (and sometimes disregarded by) humans—as has the word. As we work to ensure clean water for Pakistan, let’s look into the etymology of arsenic.

orpiment-realgar-quartz-154641
Orpiment, the historic arsenic, glittering on quartz. (Wikimedia Commons)

Etymological alchemy

English has known arsenic since at least Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, which is dated to 1386 and concerns some unscrupulous alchemists. Chaucer’s arsenic was technically a kind of arsenic sulfide, a bright yellow mineral known as orpiment. Orpiment comes from the Latin auripigmentum, a compound literally meaning “gold-pigmented.” Alchemists tried to derive actual gold from it.

English gets this arsenic from the French arsenic and Latin arsenicum, in turn from the Greek arsenikon (ἀρσενικόν). The Greeks, according to the etymologists, fashioned this after their word for “masculine, male, strong, virile” (arsen). As Walter Skeat explains:

This [Greek] word [literally] means “male”; in allusion to the extraordinary alchemical fancy that some metals were of different sexes. Gold, e.g., also called Sol, the sun, was masculine, whilst silver, also called Luna, the moon, was feminine. Others suppose the word simply refers to the strength of the material.

All that glitters is, etymologically, gold

It’s a handy bit of folk etymology, ancient Greek, but your arsenikon ultimately goes back, via an Aramaic dialect word al zarnika, to the likes of an old Iranian root (zarna), meaning “gold-colored” and referring to orpiment’s signature hue. As Iranian is an Indo-European language, some etymologists trace zarna further back to a Proto-Indo-European root, *ghel-, “to shine,” source of English’s gold and yellow, among a family of other shiny words like glass, glaze, gleam, glimmer, glitter, and glisten.

Arsenic, the chemical element as such, glistens—but gray. The name was applied by Cornish scientist Humphry Davy in 1812. Davy also gave us the modern uses of litmus paper, sodium and element, as we’ve previously seen on the blog. And when it comes to clean water, it can be all too often a literal battle of the elements.

m ∫ r ∫

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4 thoughts on “The etymological elements of “arsenic”

  1. Hummm … interesting! I know India also has lot of this in their water…. what they do is add lemon juice and let the water sit for a day and then drink up… all but the bottom layer of water…. maybe it sinks to the bottom…

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  2. Water continues to become more precious, people are going to be drinking a lot worse than arsenic laced water I would imagine. A fella told me one time, the big copper mines in Arizona would pump water and sulfuric acid down the old mine shafts, the acid would float the copper back out. Would be kind of bad if that got into the groundwater and deep aquifers. Imagine that was not a consideration, not when profits come first.

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