The Multi-Faceted Origins of 12 Birthstone Names

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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A New App Interprets Sign Language for the Amazon Echo
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The convenience of the Amazon Echo smart speaker only goes so far. Without any sort of visual interface, the voice-activated home assistant isn't very useful for deaf people—Alexa only understands three languages, none of which are American Sign Language. But Fast Company reports that one programmer has invented an ingenious system that allows the Echo to communicate visually.

Abhishek Singh's new artificial intelligence app acts as an interpreter between deaf people and Alexa. For it to work, users must sign at a web cam that's connected to a computer. The app translates the ASL signs from the webcam into text and reads it aloud for Alexa to hear. When Alexa talks back, the app generates a text version of the response for the user to read.

Singh had to teach his system ASL himself by signing various words at his web cam repeatedly. Working within the machine-learning platform Tensorflow, the AI program eventually collected enough data to recognize the meaning of certain gestures automatically.

While Amazon does have two smart home devices with screens—the Echo Show and Echo Spot—for now, Singh's app is one of the best options out there for signers using voice assistants that don't have visual components. He plans to make the code open-source and share his full methodology in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Watch his demo in the video below.

[h/t Fast Company]

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How to Craft the Perfect Comeback, According to Experts
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In a 1997 episode of Seinfeld called “The Comeback,” George Costanza is merrily stuffing himself with free shrimp at a meeting. His coworker mocks him: “Hey, George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” George stands humiliated as laughter fills the room, his mind searching frantically for the perfect riposte.

It’s only later, on the drive home, that he thinks of the comeback. But the moment has passed.

The common human experience of thinking of the perfect response too late—l’esprit de l’escalier, or "the wit of the staircase"—was identified by French philosopher Denis Diderot when he was so overwhelmed by an argument at a party that he could only think clearly again once he’d gotten to the bottom of the stairs.

We've all been there. Freestyle rappers, improv comedians, and others who rely on witty rejoinders for a living say their jobs make them better equipped to seize the opportunity for clever retorts in everyday life. They use a combination of timing, listening, and gagging their inner critics. Here are their insights for crafting the perfect comeback.

LISTEN TO YOUR OPPONENT’S ARGUMENT.

The next time you’re in a heated conversation, be less focused on what you're about to say and more attentive to what you're actually responding to. When you spend more time considering what your sparring partner is saying, “you’re deferring your response until you’ve fully heard the other person," Jim Tosone, a technology executive-turned-improv coach who developed the Improv Means Business program, tells Mental Floss. Your retorts may be more accurate, and therefore more successful, when you’re fully engaged with the other person’s thoughts.

DON’T THINK TOO MUCH.

According to Belina Raffy, the CEO of the Berlin-based company Maffick—which also uses improv skills in business—not overthinking the situation is key. “You’re taking yourself out of unfolding reality if you think too much,” she tells Mental Floss. It’s important to be in the moment, and to deliver your response to reflect that moment.

TRAIN THAT SPONTANEOUS MENTAL MUSCLE.

History’s most skilled comeback artists stored witticisms away for later use, and were able to pull them out of their memory at the critical time.

Winston Churchill was known for his comebacks, but Tim Riley, director and chief curator at the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, tells Mental Floss that many of his burns were borrowed. One of his most famous lines was in response to politician Bessie Braddock’s jab, “Sir, you are drunk.” The prime minister replied, “And you, Bessie, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly.”

Riley says this line was copied from comic W.C. Fields. Nevertheless, it took quick thinking to remember and reshape the quote in the moment, which is why Churchill was thought of as a master of timing. “It was an off-the-cuff recall of something he had synthesized, composed earlier, and that he was waiting to perform,” Riley says.

But in some situations, the retort must be created entirely in the moment. Training for spontaneity on stage also helps with being quicker-witted in social situations, New York City battle rap emcee iLLspokinn tells Mental Floss. It’s like working a spontaneous muscle that builds with each flex, so, you’re incrementally better each time at seizing that witty opportunity.

MUZZLE YOUR INNER CRITIC.

Anyone who has been in the audience for an improv show has seen how rapidly performers respond to every situation. Improv teaches you to release your inhibitions and say what drops into your mind: “It’s about letting go of the need to judge ourselves,” Raffy explains.

One way to break free of your internal editor might be to imagine yourself on stage. In improv theater, the funniest responses occur in the spur of the moment, says Douglas Widick, an improv performer who trained with Chicago’s Upright Citizens Brigade. By not letting one’s conscience be one’s guide, actors can give into their “deepest fantasies” and say the things they wouldn’t say in real life.

IF YOU HAVE AN EXTRA SECOND, HONE YOUR ZINGER.

The German version of Diderot’s term is Treppenwitz, also meaning the wit of the stairs. But the German phrase has evolved to mean the opposite: Something said that, in retrospect, was a bad joke. When squaring up to your rival, the high you get from spearing your opponent with a deadly verbal thrust can be shadowed by its opposite, the low that comes from blurting out a lame response that lands like a lead balloon.

That's a feeling that freestyle rapper Lex Rush hopes to avoid. “In the heat of the battle, you just go for it,” she tells Mental Floss. She likens the fight to a “stream of consciousness” that unfolds into the mic, which leaves her with little control over what she’s projecting into the crowd.

It may help to mull over your retort if you have a few extra seconds—especially if you’re the extroverted type. “Introverts may walk out of a meeting thinking, ‘Why didn’t I say that?’ while extroverts think, ‘Why did I say that?’” Tosone, the improv coach, says. Thinking before you speak, even just briefly, will help you deploy a successful comeback.

And if it doesn’t go your way, iLLspokinn advises brushing off your missed opportunity rather than dwelling on your error: “It can be toxic to hold onto it."

THROW DIGITAL SHADE ACCORDING TO THE SAME RULES—BUT BE QUICK ABOUT IT.

Texting and social media, as opposed to face-to-face contact, give you a few extra minutes to think through your responses. That could improve the quality of your zinger. “We’re still human beings, even on screens. And we prefer something that is well-stated and has a fun energy and wit about it," Scott Talan, a social media expert at American University, tells Mental Floss.

But don't wait too long: Replies lose their punch after a day or so. “Speed is integral to wit, whether in real life or screen life,” Talan says. “If you’re trying to be witty and have that reputation, then speed will help you."

Some companies have excelled in deploying savage social media burns as marketing strategies, winning viral retweets and recognition. The Wendy’s Twitter account has become so well known for its sassy replies that users often provoke it. “Bet you won’t follow me @Wendys,” a user challenged. “You won that bet,” Wendy’s immediately shot back.

George Costanza learns that lesson when he uses his rehearsed comeback at the next meeting. After his colleague repeats his shrimp insult, George stands and proudly announces, “Oh yeah? Well, the jerk store called, and they’re running out of you!”

There’s silence—until his nemesis comes back with a lethal move: “What’s the difference? You’re their all-time best-seller.”

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