At a White House event yesterday honoring Navajo code talkers, President Trump called Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas,” as he has on many past occasions. Native American leaders, among so many others, are rightly decrying the disparaging remarks as a racial slur, as it drags native peoples into the mud—and literally so, if we look to the etymology of slur.
- 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 siolfor, silver’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 gold, silver, and bronze to check out what they’re made of.
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, glass, glaze, gloss, gleaming, glow, glower, glad, and glee. To these we might add gleam, glitter, glint, glimpse, glance, among yet others, all featuring the initial cluster gl-.
Does this gl– mean something? The topic is contentious.
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 buzzes, the 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, *aus–, probably meaning “to shine.” From this root, Latin got aes and Old English ar, which could both mean, well, “copper,” “bronze,” and “brass.”
The name for this runner-up comes from the Old English siolfor or seolfor. (In Old English, letter f 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.”
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.
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.