How the word “climate” has changed

Rooted in a Greek verb meaning “to slope,” climate originally referred to seven latitudinal zones spanning the Earth.  

On Thursday, President Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement, a 2015 landmark effort to combat climate change joined by nearly 200 countries—minus Syria, Nicaragua, and, now, the US. Where does the word climate come from it, and how has it changed over the years? 

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Climate is all about “slopes”: temperatures up, Earth down. (Pixabay)

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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

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Pepsi, Gibraltar, and other names in the news

From soda ads to ancient military strongholds, this week featured many newsworthy names.  Let’s have a look at a few—and, as always, their origins.

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The Rock of Gibraltar (Pixabay)

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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?

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Litmus is about lichen, not Latin. (Pixabay)

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Where do the male (♂) and female (♀) symbols come from?

With roots in ancient astrology and alchemy, the male (♂) and female (♀) symbols may ultimately derive from ancient Greek abbreviations for the names of gods.

This week, President Trump rescinded the Obama administration’s “protections for transgender students that had allowed them to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity,” as the New York Times reported

Covering the story, many media outlets have presented images of gender-neutral bathroom signs such as:

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Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant bathroom sign, courtesy of adasigndepot.com

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This symbol, by no means universally embraced by the transgender community, seeks to depict non-binary gender identity by joining the classical sex symbols for male (♂) and female (♀) with a combined male-female one (⚦).

Where do these male (♂) and female (♀) symbols come from, anyway?

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New Year’s “resolutions”: an etymology not meant to last

“New year, new me,” as so many of us are starting out 2017, resolved to lose weight, save money, or variously better ourselves and lives. Historians trace the practice of making self-improving resolutions in observance of the new year all the way back to ancient Babylon. But why do we call them resolutions?

Resolution

The Oxford English Dictionary first finds the phrase New Year’s resolution in American author and minister Edward Everett Hale’s 1850 Margaret Percival in America: “I am here, ready, from this moment to obey. It shall be my New Year’s resolution,” says the titular Margaret, forswearing some friends leading her astray from the (apparently) better judgment of her priest and church. Such a resolution – an action one has resolved, or firmly decided, to do – is much older, dating to the late 1400s.

But the earlier meanings of resolution and resolve don’t sound so, well, resolute: Back in 1390s, the words were used in scientific contexts for “breaking a substance down into its component parts.” Intensified by the prefix re- (“back”), resolution and resolve come form the Latin verb solvere, meaning “to loosen,” among many other extended senses. (The deeper, Indo-European root, *se-lu-, suggests something like “loosened apart.”) Chemistry still shows the ‘etymological’ sense of Latin’s solvere: A solution, loosely, is a kind of uniform mixture of one substance completely dissolved in another. Indeed, dissolve is the first of this word family to appear in written English, used for “melt” in the 1380s.

But in math and more generally, a solution is something that seems far from “broken down”: It’s an answer. What  gives? There’s a metaphor to this madness: When we take something apart (literally solving it), we can see how it works; this helps us to better understand its fundamental nature (figuratively solving it). And when we truly know something, we can thus make a determined – a resolute – decision. Looseness becomes firmness. 

This January, if you miss a day at the gym and worry your New Year’s resolution is falling apart, look to etymology for some encouragement. Sometimes it’s in breaking down that we build ourselves back up.

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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.

Ammonia

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.

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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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Terabyte: a “monstrous” amount of data

Last week, the Panama Papers leaked 2.6 terabytes of data. That adds ups to 11.5 million confidential documents about the secret, and potentially scandalous, offshoring of wealth across the globe. That’s a lot of information. You might even call it a “monstrous” amount, if you look to the origin of the prefix tera

Monsters and marvels 

While the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests terabyte in 1982, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) officially adopted the scientific prefix tera-, or tira- in its original French, in 1947. As the OED cites: “The following prefixes to abbreviations for the names of units should be used to indicate the specified multiples or sub-multiples of these units: T tira- 1012 ×.” One of the earliest usages, as far as I can tell, is teracycle, in reference to some very fast frequencies.

The IUPAC also gave the temporary names to some newly discovered elements, including ununtrium and ununpentium, as I discussed earlier this year.

To acknowledge the sheer size of this prefix quantifies, IUPAC scientists looked to a Greek word: τέρας, or teras. According to Liddell and Scott’s Greek dictionary,  the ancient Greek teras had two main meanings: 1) a “sign,” “wonder,” or “marvel,” as of the heavens; and 2) a “monster,” like a  giant serpent of the sea. The connecting sense appears to be “awe-inspiring size.”

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The Modern Greek edition of Disney’s The Beauty and the Beast translates “beast” with our focal Greek word,  teras. Image from greekshops.com.

We see a similar sense development in a prodigy, which, as in its original Latin prodigium, named both a “portent” and a “monster.” Perhaps we can imagine the ancients – and ourselves – trying to make meaning out out of some sublime but terrifying storm or creature, as Edmund Burke philosophized.

Tera-ble words 

English, as did Ancient Greek, used tera- (or its genitive τερατ-, terat-) as a combining form to make new words. Apparently a nonce usage, English scholar John Spencer used teratoscopy, or “augury from prodigies,” in his 1665 Discourses Concerning Prodigies, as the OED records. We see a teratology, a “tale about something marvelous,” in Edwards Phillips’s 1678 New World of Words, an early English dictionary. By the 1720s, something teratical “resembled a monster.”

By 1842, biologists applied teratology to the “study of physiological abnormalities,” which reminds us that we once referred to such conditions as “monstrosities.” Terata, teratogen, teratoma, and teratogenesis developed as other scientific terms referring to various physiological abnormalities.

For Indo-European scholars, the Greek teras has its lexical lair in the Proto-Indo-European *kwer-, “to make.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD) cites cognates in the Sanskrit karma (literally “something made,” hence an “act”) as well as the very word Sanskrit (“well-formed”). Barnhart’s etymological dictionary, among others, cites Balto-Slavic relatives meaning “sorcery” and “spell.”

What is the sense development from “make” to “monster”? As the AHD suggests, a monster can “make” harm – or cause destruction.

Super-sized storage

Terabytes aren’t the only “monsters” terrorizing computer technology. The giga- in gigabyte is also borrowed from the Greek. Here, γίγας, or gigas, originally one of the superhuman “giants” the Olympian gods overthrew. English ultimately gets its word giant from this Greek root. Like terabyte, giga- was adopted by the IUPAC in 1947, this prefix signifying 109, an order of magnitude of one billion.

According to some accounts,  computer scientist Werner Buchholz coined byte in 1956. A byte contains 8 bits of digital information; bit is shortened from binary digit. Byte apparently, nods to this bit and plays with bite  (appropriately enough for this discussion of monsters). Megabyte appears by 1965, kilobyte by 1970, if the OED is any measure.

Clearly, as computer memory increased, so did the need for ever-larger prefixes, hence the super-sized gigabyte and terabyte of the 1980s. (And up from a terabyte is a petabyte, but I’m not going to take that bait.)

A terabyte is indeed a “monstrous” amount of data. But the real monsters, many fear, are lurking in the shadowy, financial underworld of the offshore accounts, shell companies, and tax havens the Panama Papers may just bring to light.

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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 

 

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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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