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The Multi-Faceted Origins of 12 Birthstone Names

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Precious gems and stones—long valued for their rarity, beauty, and fabled powers—have been associated with the months of the year since antiquity. But it wasn’t until 1912, when the American National Retail Jeweler’s Association (now the Jewelers of America) met in Kansas City, that the first modern list of birthstones was standardized.

Just as many-faceted as the birthstones themselves, though, are the origins of their names. A great many of them came into English in the early 1200s to 1300s and share a similar lineage: loaned from French, filtered from Latin, borrowed from Greek, which often adopted older Semitic or Sanskrit words. While there are variations in some of the months' birthstones, here are 12 of their etymologies, unearthed.

1. GARNET

January’s birthstone, garnet, is actually a group of several related silicate minerals. They’re most famously red, but can be found in several colors, including green. The name likely comes from the Latin granatum, meaning “pomegranate,” due to the likeness of the gem’s most famous color and shape to the small seeds and red flesh of the fruit. Another hypothesis is that it’s from the Latin granum for "grain," in this case referring to a red dye.

2. AMETHYST

Amethyst is February’s birthstone, a deep purple variety of quartz. Its root, the Greek amethystos, literally means “not drunk,” as the stone was thought to prevent intoxication. Ancient imbibers wore amethyst jewelry or drank from amethyst vessels in the belief that they could party without the consequences.

3. BLOODSTONE

One of March’s birthstones is the bloodstone, a dark green chalcedony (a mixture of quartz and mogánite) speckled with red hematite that resemble drops of blood (hence the name). The ancient Greeks had a similar idea with hematite, an iron oxide often reddish-brown in hue, whose name comes from the Greek for “blood-like.” In the Middle Ages, bloodstone was believed to have the power to stanch blood—and even make people invisible.

4. DIAMOND

They say diamonds are forever—and etymologists would agree. The name for April’s carbon birthstone, the hardest natural substance in the world, ultimately comes from the Latin adamas, “hardest.” Some scholars think adamas joins Greek roots meaning “not conquered,” hence “invincible”; others suspect it was just borrowed from an ancient Semitic word. Via Latin, adamas also gives us adamant, a word historically associated with metals and stones of surpassing strength before describing someone as “unshakeable.”

5. EMERALD

May birthdays boast the bright green beryl called the emerald, believed to ward off witchcraft and aid childbirth in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Emerald, after many cuts in French and Latin, comes, incredibly, from the Greek smargados, a word probably from the Semitic word for “bright” or “shine.”

6. PEARL

While not a gemstone (it’s referred to as a “gem material”), the oyster-originating pearl, one of June’s birthstones, is valued as a precious gem for its rarity and luster. The earliest use of pearl in English, documented around 1340, referred to the “pupil” or “lens” of the eye, iridescent as they can be. But the ancient Romans might have seen a different likeness in perula, the source of pearl, which is possibly a diminutive of perna, “haunch”—generally of ham—to describe a mollusk whose shape was deemed leg-like.

7. RUBY

The birthstone of July is the ruby, red in color and composed of corundum, an aluminum oxide with trace amounts of chromium. Describing something as ruby red, though, is etymologically redundant. Ruby is from the Latin rubeus, meaning “red.” In English, ruby referred to the precious stone (early 1300s) before it was extended as a color word (late 1400s).

8. SARDONYX

August is another month with several birthstones, including, historically, sardonyx. This stone features white layers of quartz in sandy-red sard, also a type of quartz, and those layers look like the thin, white bands on black onyx—thus sardonyx. Sard hails from Sardis, the capital of Lydia, an ancient kingdom once controlling western Turkey. And onyx means “nail” or “claw” in ancient Greek, because the stone’s markings were thought to resemble fingernails.

9. SAPPHIRE

The rich blue of September’s honorary gem, the sapphire, is, like the ruby, a variety of corundum (other colors of corundum are referred to as “fancy sapphires”). Sapphire ultimately derives from the Greek sapphiros, which actually referred to “lapis lazuli,” a deep blue rock that’s most famous today for its use in paint. The deeper origins of sapphiros are obscure, though some scholars have argued for sanipriya, a Sanskrit word for a precious stone literally meaning “sacred to the planet Saturn.” During the Renaissance, some believed sapphires could cure anger and stupidity.

10. OPAL

The origin of October’s iridescent opal may be Latin by way of Greek by way of Sanskrit: upala, meaning “gem” or “precious stone.” While the stone was smeared with various bad-luck-bringing superstitions starting in the 19th century, opal historically was believed to promote healthy eyesight—and even clairvoyance.

11. TOPAZ

November’s topaz, with its brownish yellow to blue luster, is an aluminum-fluoro-hydroxy-silicate. The word is rooted in the Greek topazos, which Roman scholar Pliny the Elder thought referred to a hard-to-reach island in the Red Sea, Topazios, from the Greek verb topazein, “to seek.” The island is now often identified as Zarbargad Island off Egypt. The Greeks may have borrowed topaz, alternatively, from the Sanskrit tapas, “heat” or “fire,” alluding to the stone’s blazing yellow hues.

12. TURQUOISE

Vivid greens and blues distinguish December’s birthstone, turquoise, a rare mineral composed of copper, aluminum, and phosphate. The name is simply an Old French adjective for “Turkish,” from pierre turquoise, or “Turkish stone.” This name alludes to the fact that Europeans in the Middle Ages associated the stone with the region of Turkestan or other historically Turkish-ruled territories.

All images courtesy of iStock.

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Beyond “Buffalo buffalo”: 9 Other Repetitive Sentences From Around The World
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Famously, in English, it’s possible to form a perfectly grammatical sentence by repeating the word buffalo (and every so often the place name Buffalo) a total of eight times: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo essentially means “buffalo from Buffalo, New York, who intimidate other buffalo from Buffalo, New York, are themselves intimidated by buffalo from Buffalo, New York.” But repetitive or so-called antanaclastic sentences and tongue twisters like these are by no means unique to English—here are a few in other languages that you might want to try.

1. “LE VER VERT VA VERS LE VERRE VERT” // FRENCH

This sentence works less well in print than Buffalo buffalo, of course, but it’s all but impenetrable when read aloud. In French, le ver vert va vers le verre vert means “the green worm goes towards the green glass,” but the words ver (worm), vert (green), vers (towards), and verre (glass) are all homophones pronounced “vair,” with a vowel similar to the E in “bet” or “pet.” In fact, work the French heraldic word for squirrel fur, vair, in there somewhere and you’d have five completely different interpretations of the same sound to deal with.

2. “CUM EO EO EO EO QUOD EUM AMO” // LATIN

Eo can be interpreted as a verb (“I go”), an adverb ("there," "for that reason"), and an ablative pronoun (“with him” or “by him”) in Latin, each with an array of different shades of meaning. Put four of them in a row in the context cum eo eo eo eo quod eum amo, and you’ll have a sentence meaning “I am going there with him because I love him.”

3. “MALO MALO MALO MALO” // LATIN

An even more confusing Latin sentence is malo malo malo malo. On its own, malo can be a verb (meaning “I prefer,” or “I would rather”); an ablative form of the Latin word for an apple tree, malus (meaning “in an apple tree”); and two entirely different forms (essentially meaning “a bad man,” and “in trouble” or “in adversity”) of the adjective malus, meaning evil or wicked. Although the lengths of the vowels differ slightly when read aloud, put all that together and malo malo malo malo could be interpreted as “I would rather be in an apple tree than a wicked man in adversity.” (Given that the noun malus can also be used to mean “the mast of a ship,” however, this sentence could just as easily be interpreted as, “I would rather be a wicked man in an apple tree than a ship’s mast.”)

4. “FAR, FÅR FÅR FÅR?” // DANISH

Far (pronounced “fah”) is the Danish word for father, while får (pronounced like “for”) can be used both as a noun meaning "sheep" and as a form of the Danish verb , meaning "to have." Far får får får? ultimately means “father, do sheep have sheep?”—to which the reply could come, får får ikke får, får får lam, meaning “sheep do not have sheep, sheep have lambs.”

5. “EEEE EE EE” // MANX

Manx is the Celtic-origin language of the Isle of Man, which has close ties to Irish. In Manx, ee is both a pronoun (“she” or “it”) and a verb (“to eat”), a future tense form of which is eeee (“will eat”). Eight letter Es in a row ultimately can be divided up to mean “she will eat it.”

6. “COMO COMO? COMO COMO COMO COMO!” // SPANISH

Como can be a preposition (“like,” “such as”), an adverb (“as,” “how”), a conjunction (“as”), and a verb (a form of comer, “to eat”) in Spanish, which makes it possible to string together dialogues like this: Como como? Como como como como! Which means “How do I eat? I eat like I eat!”

7. “Á Á A Á Á Á Á.” // ICELANDIC

Á is the Icelandic word for river; a form of the Icelandic word for ewe, ær; a preposition essentially meaning “on” or “in;” and a derivative of the Icelandic verb eiga, meaning “to have,” or “to possess.” Should a person named River be standing beside a river and simultaneously own a sheep standing in or at the same river, then that situation could theoretically be described using the sentence Á á á á á á á in Icelandic.

8. “MAI MAI MAI MAI MAI” // THAI

Thai is a tonal language that uses five different tones or patterns of pronunciation (rising, falling, high, low, and mid or flat) to differentiate between the meanings of otherwise seemingly identical syllables and words: glai, for instance, can mean both “near” and “far” in Thai, just depending on what tone pattern it’s given. Likewise, the Thai equivalent of the sentence “new wood doesn’t burn, does it?” is mai mai mai mai mai—which might seem identical written down, but each syllable would be given a different tone when read aloud.

9. “THE LION-EATING POET IN THE STONE DEN” // MANDARIN CHINESE

Mandarin Chinese is another tonal language, the nuances of which were taken to an extreme level by Yuen Ren Chao, a Chinese-born American linguist and writer renowned for composing a bizarre poem entitled "The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den." When written in its original Classical Chinese script, the poem appears as a string of different characters. But when transliterated into the Roman alphabet, every one of those characters is nothing more than the syllable shi:

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.

The only difference between each syllable is its intonation, which can be either flat (shī), rising (shí), falling (shì) or falling and rising (shǐ); you can hear the entire poem being read aloud here, along with its English translation.

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'Froyo,' 'Troll,' and 'Sriracha' Added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
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Looking for the right word to describe the time you spend drinking before heading out to a party, or a faster way to say “frozen yogurt?" Merriam-Webster is here to help. The 189-year-old English vocabulary giant has just added 250 new words and definitions to their online dictionary, including pregame and froyo.

New words come and go quickly, and it’s Merriam-Webster’s job to keep tabs on the terms that have staying power. “As always, the expansion of the dictionary mirrors the expansion of the language, and reaches into all the various cubbies and corners of the lexicon,” they wrote in their announcement.

Froyo is just one of the recent additions to come from the culinary world. Bibimbap, a Korean rice dish; choux pastry, a type of dough; and sriracha, a Thai chili sauce that’s been around for decades but has just recently exploded in the U.S., are now all listed on Merriam-Webster's website.

Of course, the internet was once again a major contributor to this most recent batch of words. Some new terms, like ransomware (“malware that requires the victim to pay a ransom to access encrypted files”) come from the tech world, while words like troll ("to harass, criticize, or antagonize [someone] especially by provocatively disparaging or mocking public statements, postings, or acts”) were born on social media. Then there’s the Internet of Things, a concept that shifts the web off our phones and computers and into our appliances.

Hive mind, dog whistle, and working memory are just a few of the new entries to receive the Merriam-Webster stamp of approval. To learn more about how some words make it into the dictionary while others get left out, check these behind-the-scenes secrets of dictionary editors.

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