or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Shiny Shiny

Tonight, as usual, I was working, and as usual tidying up the paint aisle, and one bottle of paint, produced by an American company for the joint American/Canadian market and therefore having a label printed in three languages, was full of silver metallic paint, the label reading, "Silver / Argent / Plata". And I thought, "Well, that's interesting": three different words for the same thing in three languages, two of which are intimately related. I jotted the words down on a piece of paper (alongside the words they called to mind: Silver silber Argent argentum Plata platinum) and resolved to look them up when I got home.

"Silver" is, as I noted, related to German "silber"; they both spring from the Proto-Germanic word "silubra", which gave most of the Germanic languages their silver-words. (Dutch has "zilver": isn't that pretty? And there's an old Slavonic word, "sirebo", and I don't know about you, but I can't pronounce that without imagining it being spoken in Japanese.) As for where "silubra" came from, there's mostly just a lot of speculation which doesn't interest me. You can look it up if you want.

Did you know that "argent" occurs in English? I didn't. I knew it was the French word for "silver", and that it came from Latin "argentum", and that this was where the abbreviation on the periodic table of elements, Ag, came from. But English certainly does love to borrow words, and it happily took "argent" from French and applied it to what was later called quicksilver and is now called mercury. (The "quick-" in "quicksilver" has nothing to do with speed: it means "alive", as in "the quick and the dead", because mercury moves around as if it had a mind of its own, particularly when you try to pick it up with your fingertips and it divides and scatters, leaving you with nothing but tiny spherules of the stuff between the grooves in your fingerprints.)

"Plata", Spanish for "silver", looks like "plate", and it doesn't take a whole lot of imagination to guess that that's where it comes from: a sheet or plate of metal. Platinum, which looks rather like silver, also gets its name from the Spanish: "platina", the diminutive of "plata", was turned into "platinum" in, of all things, modern Latin in the nineteenth century.


Post a Comment

<< Home