Issue 140, page 1

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There is a scholarly debate of long standing as to the origin of jewel.  Is it from Latin gaudium ("joy") via a conjectured *gaudellium and hence related to gaudy, jolly, joy?  Or does it share an ancestor with joke and derive from jocare, Latin for "to play"? 

There is no such dubiety about the origin of gem.  It comes from gemma, the Latin for "bud" and was one of the few Latin words imported directly into Old English (by 800 AD).  The OE version of the word looked a bit like gimme and sounded like "ghi-me".  The spelling looks singularly apt for the meaning but the Old English word actually began not with a g but with a yogh, a letter we don't have any more.  Yogh looked a hybrid between a g and a z and sounded like clearing one's throat.  It was eventually replaced at the beginnings of words by y  and by gh in endings.  The similarity of yogh to z led to the spurious zimme, a word which may occasionally be found in dictionaries (but  never outside of them).Fine quality emeralds from the Panjshir Valley

Opal (from Sanskrit upal "precious") is one of the few words to come to us from the classical language of ancient India.  The ancient Greek beryllos meant "gem" and this vagueness has been inherited by our word beryl.  When a transparent green, it is called emerald and when greenish-blue it is aquamarine.  The greenish-blue stone par excellence, the gemstone which gave its name to greenish-blue, is turquoise (French for "Turkish").  Just as with the turkey-bird (from North America) this "Turkish" stone (actually from Persia) took its name from the "Turkey merchants" who dealt in all things exotic.

Another debate, even stranger than that over jewel, rages over pearl.  Does it come from Vulgar Latin pira "pear" (from the shape of the pearl) or from perna "ham, leg of mutton" (from the shape of the shell)?  As soon as we finish the time machine in the garage we'll find out for certain.

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