Etymology of the Day: Litmus

Litmus, as in litmus test, is just one of those words that looks like it’s from Latin. For one, it ends in -us, a signature case ending in the language. For another, many of us first encounter the word in chemistry class, and science, we know, brims with Latin derivatives. So, why don’t we put the word litmus to the etymological litmus test?

Litmus is about lichen, not Latin. (Pixabay)

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Of gods and dung: the origins of “ammonia”

Scientists know ammonia as:

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Ancient Egyptians also knew ammonia with their own, equally complex symbols:

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Well, in a manner of speaking. Or writing. The story of the word ammonia is one of modern science and ancient history – and of camel dung and supreme deities.


Swedish chemist Torbern Bergman coined ammonia in 1782 when he identified the substance as the gas that can be obtained from sal ammoniac. Previously, ammonia was called spirit of hartshorn in English, as it was distilled from the nitrogen-laden horns and hooves of animals, which is much more pleasant than other sources of the chemical.

Literally meaning “salt of Ammon,” sal ammoniac is a crystalline salt which was once derived from the dung of camels, apparently. (And you thought ammonia smelled bad.) Ancient Libya had a shrine to Jupiter Ammon. Worshippers would hitch their camels to pay their respects as they passed through the area, known as Ammonia. Meanwhile, their camels would pour their own libations: chemically rich excrement. Enterprising, and adventurous, individuals collected the soiled sands to produce sal ammoniac.

Following their conquest of Northern Africa, the Romans mapped their king of the gods, Jupiter, onto an Egyptian supreme deity, Amun. The Greeks rendered Amun as Ammon, which the Romans adapted for Jupiter Ammon.

Amun was often depicted with a ram’s horn, which paleontologists later thought resembled the spiraling shells of an extinct mollusk, the ammonite. The name Amun, whose hieroglyph is featured above, may derive from a word meaning “invisible” or “hidden” – not unlike the very gas in which his name surprisingly lives on.

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“Soda”: An etymological “headache”?

This week, Philadelphia became the first major American city to tax soda and other sugar-added beverages. Supporters tout the levy as a remedy for health problems and school funding. Opponents see it as an illegal overreach of the nanny state and a real headache for the beverage industry. This split will surely play out in court – just as it might, quite literally, in the very etymology of the word soda.

Refreshing…or head-splitting? “Salsosa soda,” (c) 2006 Luigi Rignanese. 

Soda‘s fountain

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites soda in a 1558 translation of a French medical guide. The manual lists soda as an ingredient in an ointment for hair removal, noting that this soda was obtained from the ashes of grass and used by glassmakers. It also mentions a Venetian soda in a later passage on soap preparation.

Venetian soap and medicinal grass? (It’s no wonder Coke so closely guards its secret formula). Originally, soda was indeed obtained from the ashes of plants, specifically salt-rich marine flora like saltwort, featured above. The alkaline derivative, now largely produced artificially, has long been used in soap and glass.

Problem and solution? 

Now, most etymologists agree that soda comes from the Medieval Latin or Italian soda, but they dispute its deeper roots. The OED is conservative on the matter, leaving its origin unknown. Others philologists enjoy a bit more of a sugar high. Skeat and Weekly look to the Latin solidus, “solid,” characterizing the hard products yielded by saltwort plants. Italian eventually contracted this solidus into soda, they write.  Skeat goes on to trace the Spanish form of soda, sosa, back to the Latin sal, “salt,” relate to salsa and sausage.

The Barnhart Etymology Dictionary maintains soda ultimately derives from the Arabic, suwwad, the name for a kind of saltwort, which was exported from North Africa to Sicily in the Middle Ages. Suwwad, the dictionary notes, is related to sawad, “black,” referring to the color of a variety of the plant. The dictionary concludes Italian directly borrowed the word, as evidenced as early as the 1300s.

Other scholars, apparently chugging Mountain Dew, have proposed the Arabic suda, “headache.” Some even gloss the word as a “splitting headache,” derived from a verb meaning “to split.” The saltwort plant, as the theory goes, was used to cure such headaches. Latin borrowed the medicine and word as sodanum, a “headache remedy,” thence shortened  and spread as soda. It’s a fizzy etymology, but one that most scholars agree has gone flat.

Soda products

In the 18th and 19th centuries, chemists were, well, effervescent about soda. They injected the soda-derived sodium bicarbonate into water, calling it soda water by 1802. This was shortened to soda by 1834. Pop – named for the sound of the cork when the beverage was originally served and preferred in many dialects, including my own – is attested even earlier, in 1812. The OED dates soda-pop to 1863. Today’s soda features carbonic acid, among other additives; baking soda, however, preserves its chemical and linguistic connection to sodium bicarbonate.

In 1807, Humphry Davy isolated an element from caustic soda and so named it sodium. He used the symbol Na as a nod to natrium, a name proposed by his contemporary, Jacob  Berzelius. Berzelius was inspired by natron, a naturally occurring soda-solution whose name is related to the Greek nitro and may itself have deeper Middle Eastern roots.

In 1933, Eugene O’Neill debuted his comedy, Ah, Wilderness! In the play, a character asks,  “Ever drink anything besides sodas?” The OED cites this usage as the earliest record we have specifically for the modern “drink” or “glass of” soda. It’s a question that still has a sharp bite today. But the answer may not be what Philadelphia has in mind: “Beer and sloe-gin. Fizz and Manhattans.”

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Why is something “hermetically” sealed?

As the 2016 presidential campaign heats up, so do the attacks.

Campaigning for his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, days before the New Hampshire primaries, Bill Clinton characterized her opponent, Bernie Sanders, as so cut off from reality that it’s as if he’s living in a “hermetically sealed box.”

Talk about feeling the Bern.

Such a box is “airtight,” as we know. But why do we call such a seal a hermetic seal? It turns out the former president drew his fire – er, etymological fire– from alchemy.

A floor tile of Hermes Trismegistus from the Siena Cathedral in Italy. Image from Wikimedia Commons


Neoplatonists and other early mystics identified the Egyptian god, Thoth, with the Greek god, Hermes, and called him Hermes Trismegistus, a god of science and art. They also believed Hermes Trismegistus authored the esoteric Corpus Hermeticum, among other names. This was a body of writings on philosophical and theosophical topics, including such magical ones as bringing statues to life. His name means “Hermes Thrice-Great.”

The Corpus Hermeticum essentially founded Western alchemy, whose metal-melting distillations required completely sealing off glass tubes. The invention of this process – and its name – alchemists credited to Hermes Trismegistus, who knew the secrets of their occult art. In Medieval Latin, Hermes was rendered into an adjective hermeticus, yielding English’s hermetical and hermetic.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds records of various hermetic terminology in the 17th century. Both Hermes’ seal and hermetically are dated to English clergyman Thomas Tymme’s 1605 translation of 16th-century French physician Joseph du Chesne’s The Practice of Chymicall and Hermeticall Physicke.

For Hermes’ seal, Tymme writes: “Hermes seale…take the red hote tonges, and therewith wring or nippe the toppe close together; whereby it shall be closed as if it had no vent before.” Tymme uses the adverbial form in a different passage: “A smal cappe or cover, with his receiver, strongly and well luted, hermetically closed rounde about.” Such seals were usually achieved through soldering, welding, or fusion. “Hermetic seal” and “hermetically sealed” as such the OED dates later in the 1600s.

Tymme’s work, it’s worth noting, also provides the OED’s earliest evidence for the word chemistry. And alchemy, so much the precursor to modern chemistry, was once known as the hermetic science.

Now, the ultimate origin of the Greek Hermes is sealed off to us, so to speak. The god’s name, though, also lives on in another English words: hermaphrodite. In Greek mythology, Hermes and Aphrodite had a son, the handsome Hermaphroditos. The water nymph Salmacis fell so deeply in love with him, according to one version of the myth, that she wished the two joined into one. The gods granted her wish, hence this word variously applied to something or someone with both male and female parts.

Folk etymology erroneously connects the Hermes to hermeneutic, I’ll add while we’re on the topic. That word derives from the Greek for “interpreter.”

So, the phrase hermetically sealed looks to alchemy for its origin – so, too, I suspect, will some of the presidential candidates as they try to push on for the nomination after the New Hampshire results come in.

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Element, O, P? The elements of “element”

Last post, I discussed how the four, newly confirmed elements are named. But what about the very word element? How did it get its name? Its etymology may not be so, er, elementary.

Building blocks and ABCs? It’s elementary. “Element.” Doodle by me.

The development of element

In English, the earliest record of element names the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire, which ancient and medieval philosophers believed made up the whole of the physical universe. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds record of such usages as early as the 1300s.

The OED also finds, I should note, some early evidence of element that might refer to celestial bodies, suggesting that the word may have had multiple meanings even in its cradle.

We now know, of course, that the universe is composed of so much more than earth, air, water, and fire – and in a completely different manner. Though, if you stop to think about it, humans have discovered 118 elements, 24 of which are synthetic. That’s really not a whole lot of stuff making up the universe as we know it. And most of it actually just hydrogen.

Anyways, we might well say the the discovery of those four new elements – ununtrium, ununpentium, ununseptium, and ununoctium – owes a lot to those old theories, if we take the long view. And the four classical elements show their influence not only on the development of modern chemistry but also on Modern English, seen in the expressions in or out of (one’s) elements. See, each of the four elements was considered to be the natural realm for respective living beings. Think: birds in the air, fish in the sea. This usage, as the OED documents, dates back to the end of the 16th century.

Now, the OED first credits the modern chemical usage of element to Cornish scientist Humphry Davy (who also gets credit for the metallic suffix -ium, as we saw last post) in his lectures, Elements of Agricultural Chemistry, compiled in 1813. According to an 1815 edition of the work, Davy states:

By methods of analysis dependent on chemical and electrical instruments discovered in late times, it has been ascertained that all the varieties of material substances may be resolved into a comparatively small number of bodies, which, as they are not capable of being decompounded, are considered in the present state of chemical knowledge as elements. The bodies incapable of decomposition at present known are forty-seven.

I love that Davy’s lectures are called Elements of Agricultural Chemistry. And he even opens his lectures by observing that the “doctrines” of agricultural chemistry “have not yet been collected into any elementary treatises.” These examples aptly show that element and its derivative forms had already long been enjoying many senses outside of material contexts.

The ABCs of element 

OK, so what do we know about the etymological elements of element? The English word passes into English from the French element, which developed from Latin’s elementumLike English’s own element, this word could refer to a lot of things, including the notion of a “first principle.” As the OED describes it, Latin’s elementum is a “word of which the etymology and primary meaning are uncertain…”

This uncertainty has lead to a number of curious hypotheses. While noting its ultimately obscure origin, Eric Partridge wonders if elementum may have developed from *eligmentum, formed on “ēligere, to choose (the fundamental substance or basic principle) from (a welter of physical phenomenon).”

Meanwhile, Earnest Klein, also noting the obscure origin, suggests one proposal, *elepantum, is “most probable.” This *elepantum, so it’s argued, meant “ivory letter,” loaned from the Greek ἐλέϕας – “elephant” or “ivory,” and source of elephant – but altered by some Etruscan influence.

Ivory letters? Surely Klein means letters carved into (or possibly from?) ivory. The ivory component of this argument may be lacking tusks, but the letter part is important.

For Latin’s elementum could also refer to that building block of reading and writing: a “letter,” as in a letter of the alphabet. English features the metaphor, too. We don’t just learn our ABCs in elementary school. We also learn the ABCs of computer programming or basketball, say.

Scholars are also certain that Latin’s elementum is actually a translation of the Greek στοιχεῖον (stokheion), a word with equally many meanings.

For this word, I consulted Liddell and Scott’s Greek dictionary, and they gloss it as “one of row,” referring to, in the singular, “the shadow of the gnomon (of a sundial)” as well as “a letter.” In the plural, the word referred to the classical “elements” (a usage to attributed Plato) as well “rudiments” in the more general sense. At root is στοῖχος (stoikhos), a “row” or “rank,” source of English’s stoichiometry, speaking of chemistry.

But why the form elementum for that Greek  stokheionCarefully sound out the first three syllables of the word. Does it sound like letters lm, and n?  Was elementum a way of referring to the Roman alphabet via its second half, viz. alphabet (from Greek, referring to its first two letters, alpha and beta) or abecedarium (from post-classical Latin, joining a later Roman alphabet’s first three)?

But, then again, why the second half? Seems a bit fanciful, no?

Well, esteemed etymologist Anatoly Liberman thinks there may just be something to this, including the fancy. Through a series of sound changes beyond our element here, Liberman makes the case that elementum is an alteration of alimenta, “food” or “sustenance,” with each letter in the alphabetic sequence “nourishing” the next. (For  alimenta, think English’s alimentary). The resulting elementum additionally punned on lm, and n. And all as a sort of act of fancy on the part of some scholar. As Liberman puts it:

To put it differently, elementum was not derived from an identifiable root with the help of a suffix but coined whole to gloss Greek stoikheon…Some grammarian must have taken alimenta ~ *olimenta and changed it into elementa (the singular elementum postdates the plural).

This means Latin was first using elementa to refer to “letters,” later figuring other “rudiments” or “first principles” with the term  and then back-forming the singular, elementum.

Further efforts have attempted to link elementum to Semitic roots, including the ancient Canaanite alphabet, but these theories are certainly not easy as ABC.

Whether or not element ultimately imitates the recitation of any letters is up for debate, but one thing is for sure: its Latin and Greek references to the ABCs proves element is pretty elementary, in a manner of speaking, after all.

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Easy as un-bi-tri? Naming new elements

Recently, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) added four new elements to the periodic table. They are temporarily known as ununtriumununpentiumununseptium, and ununoctium.

That’s a daunting lot of u’s, but the nomenclature behind them is actually pretty, um, elementary – which is about the only thing that seems simple when it comes to the business of chemistry, if you ask me.

Actually, even the naming can get pretty complicated, if you dig deep enough, but here’s a basic breakdown, with a little etymology mixed in.

The whys of all the u‘s 


Image from IUPAC.

Before receiving permanent names, new elements take on provisional ones, called “systematic names,” according to the IUPAC’s official guidelines.

These systematic names are based on the elements’ atomic numbers and derived from Latin and Greek roots for numerals.

Let’s take ununtrium. This is element 113, as the element has 113 protons. Ununtrium literally and sequentially links Latin roots for digits 1, 1, and 3. (As opposed to the Latin for one hundred and thirteen, which I believe is centum et tredecim, but don’t necessarily count on that).

And just to be clear, the Latin root for one is un-, from ūnus. For three we have tri-, formed on trēs.

Then, we tack on the suffix ium, used to name metallic elements. Indeed, these elements, completing the periodic table’s seventh row, are some truly superheavy, if incredibly short-lived, metals synthesized in the laboratory.

Now, the Latin words for many elements – like gold, or aurum, and iron, ferrum – end in –um. The Oxford English Dictionary observes that Cornish scientist Humphry Davy, who discovered a number of metals such as potassium and sodium, helped propel the -ium suffix back in 1807. Based on the compounds Davy was electrolyzing, potassium is formed on potash and sodiumsoda. And so from these –ium largely prevailed ever since.

Ununpentium follows the pattern but uses the Greek root for fivepent-, apparently to avoid confusion between Latin’s quad(for digit 4) and quint– (for digit 5).  Ununseptium and ununoctium continue with the Latin roots for seven (sept-) and eight (oct-).

And the temporary chemical symbols of the new elements– Uut, Uup, Uus, and Uu0 – simply abbreviate the initial letter of their component numerical roots. Easy as un-, bi-, tri-, right?

All this once made element 111, now officially roentgenium, quite the u-ful: unununium, with chemical symbol Uuu.

Name game, round 2

Next, the new elements’ discoverers will submit recommendations for permanent names to the IUPAC, which reviews them for suitability, especially for use across languages. According to the IUPAC’s guidelines, the new names must be based on a mythological concept or character, a mineral or similar substance, a place or geographical region, a property the element displays, or a scientist.

If recent discoveries are any measure, the new names will likely honor the laboratories or nationalities of the scientists. So, the Japanese scientists who synthesized ununtrium may submit japonium for the official name.

You can read the IUPAC’s official recommendations for naming new elements here. For more on the history of the IUPAC’s recommendations, I recommend this piece by Quartz. I also enjoyed the BBC’s take on how elements get their names. And for some more general information on the elements, head over to NPR.

Next post, we’ll look into the origin of the very word element, which turns out to be far from basic.

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As I’m sure you know by now, Donald Trump has come under fire for his sexist “blood” remarks he made in reference to Fox News Host Megyn Kelly, who helped moderate last Thursday’s GOP presidential debate. Conservative blogger and radio host Eric Erickson, who has since disinvited Trump from his upcoming RedState Gathering, commented on Trump’s remarks: “I just don’t want someone on stage who gets a hostile question from a lady and his first inclination is to imply it was hormonal. It just was wrong.” An unapologetic Trump has objected to this characterization of hormonal, claiming instead he felt “viciously attacked” by Kelly – ironically enough if we look to the etymology of hormone.

Attack of the anemones? "Sea anemone." Ink, ballpoint, and highlighter on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
Attack of the anemones? “Sea anemone.” Ink, ballpoint, and highlighter on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


Hormones are often described as the body’s chemical messengers sent through the bloodstream to regulate various functions in organs and tissue. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, British physiologist Ernest Henry Starling coined the term hormone for these substances as a result of his research on secretin in 1902. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records Starling’s usage of the word in 1905: “These chemical messengers, however, of ‘hormones,’…as we might call them.”

These hormones are “attacks,” as we might etymologically call them.

Starling formed the word directly on the Greek ὁρμῶν (hormon), a present participle of the verb ὁρμᾶν, (horman), “to set into motion.”  In English, a present participle is the -ing form of a verb: I am etymologizing. So, hormone is “setting into motion.”

The verb ὁρμᾶν (horman) is formed on a noun, ὁρμή (horme). According to Liddell and Scott’s Greek lexicon, the Greek ὁρμή has two main meanings. First, it signifies a “violent movement onwards, assault, attack, onset” – a “vicious attack,” Donald Trump might say. From this sense, it secondarily signified “the first stir or start in [an effort], an impulse.” They note the Latin equivalent (and English borrowing impetus) to gloss both senses.  Physiologically, then, hormones “are named for their stimulating effect,” as philologist Jordan Shipley concisely puts it.

The Ancient Greeks personified – and worshipped – Ὁρμή (Horme) as a goddess of effort, energy, and action. Carl Jung later used horme to refer to unconscious psychological energy driving human behavior. Perhaps Trump should brush up on his Jung.

In the body, a hormone is produced by glands. According to American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD), the Greek ὁρμή was produced by the Proto-Indo-European *or-sma, an extended form of *er-, “to move, to set in motion.” This root was sent down the linguistic bloodstream, so to speak, eventually forming English’s riseraiserear, orient, origin, earnest, and Starling’s own first name, Ernest. The root, the AHD also explains, generated a very important little verb, are. Maybe if Hamlet had conjugated to be he would have been a little less hesitant.

Sexist suffix? 

Starling’s secretin inspired hormone, but some different substances have influenced what the ending of hormone was assimilated into: the chemical suffix -one. In 1832, German polymath Carl Reichenbach extracted oil from tar, naming it Eupion. French chemist Antoine Bussy adopted the word into French, eupione, and “noted the usefulness of the element –one as a productive suffix (likened to the Greek –ωνη female descendant),” the OED explains. Bussy rendered such chemicals as acetone. The suffix has since become productive in English.

A female patronymic or matronymic, to be more concise and less patriarchal, –ωνη (-one) could be suffixed to words to indicate “daughter of,” and is featured in English’s anemone, literally “daughter of the wind.” (The Greek anemos means “wind.”) Originally, the chemical -one designated organic compounds derived from other compounds. In its entry on hormone, the Online Etymology Dictionary notes that, “in chemical use, [-one denotes] a ‘weaker’ derivative”; chemists will refer to certain compounds, say, acids or bases, as “weak,” depending on their properties

Calling a woman hormonal is a sexist attack, but a female patronymic likened to a “weak” derivative? It appears part of the etymology of hormonal may be sexist, too.

Sea Anemone_Ink_Ballpoint_Highlighter_scribblesm ∫ r ∫

the food groups, part ii

This post, we pick up on the food groups, looking at dairyprotein, and oils.


Dairy is the kind of word that makes etymology nerds like me jump up and down. It features disguised compounds. When words get smashed together with other words, sounds change and forms change, sometimes making one word look like another, other times burying a compound altogether. As the preeminent etymologist Anatoly Liberman puts it, “compounds tend to deteriorate.”

Dairy is a full-fat example of this.

In Middle English, the word dairy took the form deieriejoining dey (among other forms) and the suffix –ery. Dey first referred to a “female servant.” Later, it meant a “farm servant” and “dairymaid.” The suffix -ery can denote the place of a particular activity, Here, a dairy was originally the room or building “for treating milk and its products” (Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology [ODEE]). Think bakery or laundry for some –ery comparisons.

There is much to unpack in terms of the historic constructions of women and work implied in dey, but, on an etymological level, what’s going?

Dey is from the Old English dæge, a “female servant,” but, literally, it meant a “kneader of bread.” The word is rolled out from the Proto-Germanic *daigjon; the sense of “kneading” is at root. The product of kneading, dough is a cognate. If we knead this *daigjon further, we find a Proto-Indo-European root *dheigh, meaning, according to Jordan Shipley, everything from “knead” and “mix dough” to “shape clay” and “put together.”

Human tongues have shaped some other fascinating forms out of this *dheigh, but we’ll save them for next post.


Protein: the building blocks of life and, as a coinage, an example of one of the building blocks of etymology. In an 1838 article in Bulletin des sciences physiques et naturelles en neerlande, Dutch scientist Gerhard Johan Mulder uses a French formation, protéine, to describe the composition of some organic substances.  Apparently, this word was the suggestion of Jöns Jacob Berzelius, the accomplished Swedish chemist, who is also given credit for polymer and catalysis, among other terms.

So, why protéine? At root is the Greek proteios, “of the first quality,” joining protos (“first”) and the -eios suffix. It was so named as a “primary substance…of material bodies of animals and plants” (Oxford English Dictionary).

Proto- is a member of the big family headed by the Proto-Indo-European *per-, which came to mean everything from “through” and “around” to “before” and “first.” Per-, peri-para-, and pro- may all be familiar prefixes derived from it. They are still productive today.

Our understanding of protein has evolved, to be sure, for now protein is considered one of the three food groups in Orange County, CA. The others being, of course, juice (i.e., blended juices and smoothies) and Starbucks.

Doodle by me. Click to enlarge.


Health advice aside, even etymology is urging you to use olive oil as your cooking oil. For oil, etymologically, is olive oil.

Oil, whose historic spellings are more varied than your choices of olive oil at the grocery store, is from the Old and Middle French oile, pressed from the Latin oleum. It referred to “oil,” thus “olive oil.” Old English had ele, a cognate of oil, but Germanic languages jumped on the Latin oleum food craze, and a new brand, if you will, made it into the pantry.

The Latin oil goes further back to the Greek elaion, the “olive tree” or “olive.” The Romans took elaion up as oliva, hence olive. The Online Etymology Dictionary speculates that the Greek root might be related to the Armenian ewi, “oil,” adopted into Greek from Aegean or Cretan tonuges. Aremenian is indeed an Indo-European language with some kinship to Ancient Greek. Wiktionary seconds this ewi cognate, adding the Old Church Slavonic’s loi, “tallow,” and posits a Proto-Indo-European *loiwom.

Petroleum is literally “rock oil,” joining the Latin petra (rock, via Greek) and oleum (as discussed above). Shipley observes that petroleum was “first extracted from fissures in rock.” Margarine is short for oleomargarine. The oleo- refers to “oil,” of course, and the margarine refers to “margaric acid,” named from the Greek margarites, “pearly,” for the acid’s crystal’s “pearly lustre” (ODEE). And now you know why a Margaret is so named.

Next post, we’ll pick up on *dheighincluding the surprising origins of lady and lord.