Issue 141, page 1

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We were reading up on anthrax the other day and discovered that "Antrax is also callyd... carbunculus" (John of Trevisa, 1398).  But, we thought, isn't a carbuncle a precious gem?  A little spadework revealed that a carbuncle was, in fact a mythical gem which, according to legend, glowed red - even in total darkness.  Nowadays, the word is used for an inflammation of the skin which resembles a headless boil.  How are they all connected?  Coal.

The Greeks called a disease which causes shiny and black skin lesions anthrax ("coal") and "coal" in Latin is carbusCarbunculus (and its English form carbuncle) is, therefore, a "little coal".  The legendary gem glowed red like a burning coal and, it could be said, so does a headless boil.  (We'd imagine it feels like one, too.)

Another famously "red" gem is the ruby whose name (from Latin ruber "red") tells one no more than its color.  Which is just as well for, chemically, it is just corundum (aluminum oxide) with a dash of color.   With dashes of other colors, this same substance is known by various names: topaz (yellow, red or even blue), sapphire (blue), emerald (green) and something called an "oriental amethyst" (violet).  In its less glamorous, granular state, it is called emery and, like industrial diamond, is used as an abrasive.

The Indian subcontinent has long been a source of corundum gemstones and their names reflect this.  Corundum itself is from the Sanskrit kuruvinda "ruby" by way of the Tamil version, kurundamEmerald reached us from Latin smeragdus (via Old French esmeraude) but its origin lay far distant in the Sanskrit marakta "emerald".  This was picked up by Herodotus who records it in his Histories as smaragdos.

Topaz, likewise, was adopted into Greek (as topazios) from traders who learned its name in India.  Pliny (1st century AD) thought it was named after an island in the Arabian Sea where it abounded but there is no such island.  Its name is thought to be connected with tapas (Sanskrit "heat, fire").

Sapphire is a little more complicated.  Like the other corundums (or is that corunda? - See Sez You, this issue) our word derives from a Greek word which the Greeks imported along with the gem.  But the gem we now call sapphire they called hyakinthos (from which we get hyacinth) and their sampheiros  (from which we get sapphire) was what we now call lapis lazuli.  Confused?  Wait, there's more... 

Where, exactly, did the Greeks get their word sampheiros?  At one time it was assumed that the source was Hebrew sampir, a stone mentioned in the Old Testament.  It is now thought likely that this, too, could be derived from Sanskrit.  Many Indians believe that gemstones have astrological correspondences and Sanskrit literature contains references to a gem called shanipriya "beloved of Saturn".

One would expect that emery would share its ancestry with emerald but etymology is seldom that obvious.  The name of this abrasive is taken from the Greek smeris "polishing powder".  This form of corundum, when combined with carbon, makes Carborundum, an abrasive which was patented in Monongahela City, Pennsylvania in 1892.

Which brings us to our advice to all those out there who are fighting the good fight: Nil illegitimi carborundum!

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Last Updated 11/24/01 02:45 PM