or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Fun For All

Now obviously you are not going to just start doing experiments from The Young Man's Book of Amusement, because there are a great many amusements that can blow your hands off or put your eyes out. (The full title is "The Young Man's Books of Amusement, containing the most interesting and instructive experiments in various branches of science, to which is added all the popular tricks and changes in cards; and the art of making fire works", as was the style in 1854.) A representative sample:

Put into a crucible four ounces of bismuth, and when it a state of fusion, throw in two ounces and a half of lead, and one ounce and a half of tin: these metals will combine, forming an alloy, fusible in boiling water. Mould the alloy into bars, and take them to a silver-smith's to be made into tea-spoons. Give one to a stranger to stir his tea, as soon as it is poured from the tea-pot; he will not be a little surprised to find it melt in his tea-cup.

I love the fact that the reader was assumed to have available to him a crucible and a mould for making bars of metal, and is accustomed to hieing himself off to a silver-smith's. I also love the fact that the instructions specify that you must play your little prank on a stranger, the reasonable assumption being that your own friends and family are by now leery of your offerings of innocent-looking teaspoons and the like. (This little trick, by the way, is still performed, but with spoons of gallium, which has a melting point so low that the metal will in fact melt in your hand. Since you probably don't live near a silver-smith's you may instead buy your own spoon mould.)

If you will amuse yourself with the japeries in The Young Man's Book of Amusement, and if you should lose a limb or your hearing, or if some irritable stranger with a melted tea-spoon throws the contents of his cup in your face, I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE.

Here's what I am responsible for: interesting words and their etymologies!

That's part of page 15, which is far as I initially got before I was stopped cold by a word: "zaffre". Not an everyday word, is it? You might think that it was somehow related to "zephyr", and if you did, you would be completely wrong, because it makes no sense in context. If you know a little bit about cobalt, which as cobalt chloride is a dazzling blue colour, you might guess that "zaffre" is somehow related to "sapphire". And then you would probably be right: "zaffre", or sometimes "zaffer", looks like and is likely intimately related to Italian "zaffiro", "sapphire". Some contrarians think "zaffre" might be descended instead from an Arabic word meaning "yellow copper", but to them I say, Here, have a cup of tea and shut up.


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