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The Hippopotamus

I shoot the Hippopotamus
With bullets made of platinum,
Because if I use leaden ones
His hide is sure to flatten 'em.

- Hillaire Belloc

One is likely to read, in older textbooks, that platinum was first found in South America by Native platinum Antonio de Ulloa in 1735. While we do not wish to detract from Sr. Ulloa's discovery, this cannot be true. Platinum was known to the ancient Egyptians who decorated the coffin of a high priestess with platinum hieroglyphs.  Two centuries before Ulloa, Spanish conquistadors stumbled across artifacts made of the metal when plundering the Inca civilization. They assumed them to be made of an inferior kind of silver and discarded them. The metal's original name, platina, is evidence of thisAchemical symbol for platinum unwarranted prejudice. It comes from Spanish plata, "silver" and -ina, a diminutive suffix.  In fact, it is in no way inferior to silver or even gold. Rarer and denser than either, it also resists corrosion so well that, when discovered, the platinum hieroglyphs were still bright after 2,500 years. When platinum first came to the attention of European scholars, alchemy still had respectable academic support and the element was assigned an appropriate alchemical symbol.

But, we hear you ask, where did Spanish get plata when the Latin word for "silver" is argentum? The Spanish plata, Portuguese prata and Italian piatta all mean "flat". Indeed, flat is also related, as is the Greek platus ("broad, flat"), hence Plato, he of the broad chest. Silver was often used to make eating and drinking vessels because of its malleability. That is to say, it may be hammered into shape - from Latin malleus, "a hammer". At one time, the English word plate referred to an object which had been hammered out of one piece of metal. Thus, when the Latin plattus, "flat" was used to mean "a flat vessel", that flat vessel was often made of silver. This gave rise to two divergent streams of meaning. One stream gave us the English word plate while the other produced Spanish plata and Portuguese prata. The latter two words had their meanings extended even further when they came to mean "money".

The Greek platus ("broad, flat") reminds us that place is also related, along with French place, Spanish plaza, Portuguese praça, and Italian piazza.  All these words signify a "broad, flat" area and come from the Latin platea, "a broad, open roadway". Readers familiar with old-fashioned printing presses will also recognize the word platen (a flat metal sheet) as being one of this group.

We were somewhat surprised to discover that paten (the silver plate which holds the wafer during Mass) is not related. Rather, it comes from the Latin patina which was the name given to a wide shallow vessel. This name indicates its shape as it comes from the Indo-European root *pete- meaning "to spread out". Some of these Roman patinas [patinae?] have come to light in archeological excavations, encrusted with the accumulations of millennia. Antique dealers allude to the surface of these vessels when they call a film of oxidation accumulated over time a patina. It may be found on silver, pewter and bronze but not platinum. At least, not for a good deal more than 2,500 years.

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Last Updated 09/12/02 04:21 PM