Thursday, November 7, 2013

Language of Confusion: Metal Madness

I already did iron (to see if it was related to irony—nope) and lead (to compare the two different verbs and their pronunciations), so I figured why not see where the names of other metals come from. Not that I’m sure anyone is pausing from NaNo long enough to read my blog so I can just stop trying. Anyway, here we go:

When it first showed up in the early thirteenth century, gold was just an adjective, not a name of a metal. It didn’t get attached to the metal of that color for another two centuries. The word “gold” comes from the Old English gold, which evolved from the Proto Germanic gulth and further back, the Proto Indo European ghel, which means yellow/green (in fact, in my colors post I mentioned that ghel is the origin word for yellow). In other words, gold is basically saying “that metal that’s yellow”.

Silver comes from the Old English seolfor and Mercian sylfur, which meant silver or money. In Proto Germanic the word is silubra, but from there it’s uncertain because Proto Indo European bequeathed arg- (shine, white) which gave us the Latin argentum and even the word argent here in Modern English. Silver jumped in over a thousand years ago (possibly of Asian extraction) and just stayed and now we use it to describe the shining white metal.

Tin comes from the Old English tin (I’ll never be able to pronounce that!) and Proto Germanic tinom. There’s nothing further back than that as Latin uses a completely different word, stannum. Most European countries use variations of both the Latin and Proto Germanic for tin to differentiate between the raw form of the metal and the plate form of it.

Unlike the other words here, platinum first showed up as a metal, and relatively recently in 1812. Its name comes from Latin, of course, but that was from the Spanish word platina or plata, which means silver. Apparently when it was first discovered, it was thought of as a lesser form of silver.

Or “aluminium”, for you UK types. It’s another one that didn’t show up until 1812. Its oxide form “alumina”, actually came first, and was named from the classical Latin alumen, which means alum, a salt used in medicine, tanning and dyeing among other things.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English
Orbis Latinus


  1. Gold really hasn't been a word for long.

  2. You know, there's a comic book (or was) from DC with heroes made of metal.

  3. Okay, so that explains why the element symbol for silver is Ag (from the Latin) and tin's symbol is Sn, but where does Au for gold come from? Must be from the Latin again, right?

  4. Seolfor has such a good ring to it.

    As to Andrew's comment, yes, there are characters created by a scientist out of metal... with personalities. Not sure if they're around in the post-reboot at DC...

  5. The word platina reminded me of another word I came across while doing research for a new project--patera. Patera is defined as a shallow dish was often used by the ancient Greeks. And now I see one has absolutely nothing to do with the other, but that's just how my brain works, which I guess I should be grateful it works at all. (:

  6. Have you ever checked out the Encyclopedia of Crystal, Gem and Metal Magic? It's a fantastic resource for helping you place these elements into fantasy writing. This rundown on metals of your reminded me of that. :)


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