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Show me your METAL! Part 1

Okay, so I am a better Classicist than I am a comedian. And so in this entry for Wordy Wonders, we look at the origins of key chemical symbols in ancient words, and will look at the following categories.

i) Metals whose symbol is derived from the Latin or Greek words for the metals


ii) Metals that were named using Greek or Latin derived words, from which their

symbols in the Periodic Table are also derived.

This will be a short mini-series of three articles and in this week, we shall focus on the five metals most used by the Romans. The word metal itself, incidentally, comes from Greek, μετάλλον.

Perhaps the most famous metals in this category are gold, silver, lead, copper, and iron. Have you ever sat in chemistry class wondering why the symbols of gold and silver begin with an ‘A’, rather than a ‘G’ or an ‘S’? Well, the answer lies in Latin. Their symbols come from the Latin word for the metal and here they are:

Au The Latin word for gold is aurum, and thus the symbol comes from the first two letters. The cognate adjective was aureus which also denoted a type of coin made from gold, minted only for special commemorative issues. Another rather charming link with the Latin for the precious metal comes from James Bond. The name of the villain who ‘loves only gold’ takes his name from the Latin for gold. Yep, Auric Goldfinger!

Ag Ag comes from the Latin argentum meaning silver, and also money. In fact, a banker was an argentarius. The Latin word is closely related to the Greek for silver, which is ἀργυριον. Whether the Latin came from the Greek, or they both came from an older parent-language is not entirely certain. These are not incompatible.

Pb I remember fondly reading the first edition of Rotten Romans by Terry Deary and laughing at the following wry remark when explaining the connection between Pb and the Roman word for lead, plumbum: ‘No, it’s not the Latin for purple bottom.’ No, it is not. The Romans got their lead from Sardinia and Sicily, as well as other places. Our word ‘plumber’ comes from this word. Pipes were made from lead and thus, he was a ‘lead worker.’

Cu The Latin word for copper is cuprum. And yes, it is no coincidence that this looks like Cyprus, in Greek Κύπρος. Much Roman copper came from Cyprus, and this perhaps explains the name given to the metal. Our own word ‘copper’ derives from cuprum. The use of the word cuprum was a later development. The Romans already had the word aes. The later term also shares a sweet, if indirect, link with Venus, known to the Greeks Κύπρις (as well as Aphrodite) in reference to the myth that she was born from the sea by the famous island.

Fe ferrum was the Latin for iron, which also survives in the scientific term ‘ferrous’ meaning ‘containing iron.’ ferrum was also a word for sword, referencing the metal from which they were made. I hope that has IRONed out any confusion.

ENOUGH! Anyway, I hope you have enjoyed the first article in this mini-series. Back soon with the second instalment.

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