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, the historic arsenic, glittering on quartz. (Wikimedia Commons)

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Trans fat, transracial, Trans-Pacific Partnership, transgender – indeed, trans- is the prefix of the moment, if we take a look ‘across’ the headlines.

This hummingbird must live forever. "Nectar." Ballpoint on lined paper. Doodle  by @andrescalo.
“Nectar.” Ballpoint and Sharpie on lined paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


In Latin, trans was a preposition meaning “across,” “over,” or “beyond,” often prefixed onto other words, as evidenced in English’s translatetransitive, Transylvania, or transmogrify. It was assimilated in many other words, such as tradition, trajectory, trancetranquil, and travesty. But this simple and utilitarian preposition bears quite the etymological load.

Historical linguists root trans in the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *terə-, “to cross over,” “pass through,” or “overcome.” This verb passed through Germanic passages to arrive at the English through and thorough as well as thrill and nostril. Old English had þýrel, a “bore” or “hole,” whose sense of penetration eventually yielded thrill – making nostril literally a nose thrill, or “nose hole.” *Terə- crossed over into Sanskrit, too, yielding avatar, naming a deity that has “crossed over,” or that has come down to earth incarnate.

We overcome difficulties – we come over them, cross over them, pass through them. Ancient Iranian took up this sense of *terə in *thraya, “to protect,” which Persian fashioned into saray, an “inn.” Caravansary and seraglio, among others, preserve these roots. The Latin trux, “savage” or “fierce,” may have had the force “to overcome,” eventually giving English something truculent. Something truncus may have been “overcome,” maimed like a limbless trunk or cut like trench.

Trans trans- 

Many humans ultimately wish to overcome the great ‘beyond’: death. The ancient Greek gods figured that one out – with the help of etymology, of course – with a little drink called νέκταρor nectar. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD)*nectar joins the PIE *nek-, “death,” and *terə, producing “to overcome death.”

Summer’s upon us. Better get those nectarines while they last. Unless they’re making a transcontinental or transoceanic transit – immortals eat local.

*Thanks to the AHD for help with many of the derivatives of *terə– that crossed over into English.

m ∫ r ∫