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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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EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images
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23 Slang Terms You Only Understand if You Work in Antarctica
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EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images

Thanks to extreme conditions, a small research population, close quarters, and the unique experience of life there, Antarctica has developed a lingo all of its own. Yes, even freezing, remote Antarctica has slang. Here is a sample of some, er, cooler terms, which come from the many English-speaking nationalities, from Canada to New Zealand, that have stepped foot on its ice.

1. BIG EYE

In winter, Antarctica is covered in perpetual darkness; in summer, sunlight. The continent can certainly put a wrench in one’s circadian rhythms, as this slang for light-related insomnia makes plain.

2. TOASTY

Antarctica’s climate also puts a wrench in one’s mental faculties. Crew stationed there often experience a loss of words, forgetfulness, irascibility, and “brain fog” brought on by the dark, cold, and altitude. Toasty is also used for other general misdemeanors committed around the camp.

3. ICE SHOCK

Antarctica’s shell shock. As one Antarctica-based worker blogged about it, ice shock is “when you get back to the rest of the world and realize that no matter how insane Antarctica is, the real world is FAR nuttier, and that you can no longer function in it.”

4. GREENOUT

A riff on whiteout. As The Antarctic Dictionary defines it, greenout is “the overwhelming sensation induced by seeing and smelling trees and other plants spending some time in antarctic regions.”

5. THE ICE

Speaking of the ice, this is how Antarcticans refer to the whole ice-covered continent.

6. CHEECH

Not the counterpart of Chong, but a play on consonant clusters in the name of the place from which many researchers jump off to Antarctica: Christchurch, New Zealand.

7. MACTOWN

McMurdo Station, the U.S. research hub and largest Antarctic community, which can host around 1250 residents in summer.

8. CITY MICE

These are personnel who work at the main research stations.

9. COUNTRY MICE

These are crew who move among different camps on the continent.

10. ICE-HUSBAND/ICE-WIFE

When the cat's away, the mice will play. One’s ice-husband or ice-wife is like a fling for crew down in Antarctica for the season.

11. ICE-WIDOW/ICE-WIDOWER

Meanwhile, one’s spouse or significant other is stuck all alone back home as their loved one is working at the South Pole.

12. FINGY

This pejorative term for a newbie apparently derives from “f—king new guy,” or FNG.

13. BEAKER

An epithet for “scientist.” Some specialist personnel also have nicknames, like fuelie (responsible for fueling various equipment) and wastie (who deal with refuse).

14. WINTER-OVER

When crew, bravely, stay in Antarctica over the entire brutal winter.

15. TURDSICLE

It gets cold down at the southern end of the world. The average—yes, average—temperature is -52ºF. The excrement freezeth, shall we say.

16. SNOTSICLE

So too do boogers freeze in this blend of snot and icicle.

17. DEGOMBLE

“To disencumber of snow,” as The Antarctic Dictionary explains, especially before coming back inside shelter. The origin of gomble is obscure, possibly a term for little balls of snow stuck to the fur of sled dogs.

18. SKUA

Named for the predatory, scavenging skua birds found in Antarctica, a skua pile or bin is a sort of rummage bin. Crew can leave and pick over unwanted items there. Also used as a verb.

19. OFFENSIVE POTATOES

British speakers apparently did not take a liking to canned potatoes they had to eat ...

20. SAWDUST

... nor the dried cabbage.

21. FRESHIES

Shipments of these fresh fruits and vegetables are quite welcome to the cuisine-deprived Antarctica researchers and personnel.

22. POPPY

Alcohol served over Antarctica ice, which makes a pop sound as it releases the gas long pressurized into it.

23. CARROTS

Not that much of the food sounds terribly edible, if slang is any measure, but these carrots aren’t to be munched on. They refer to ice cores, ‘uprooted’ samples whose cylindrical shape resemble the vegetable.

This slang is only the tip of the, um, iceberg. For more, see Bernadette Hince’s The Antarctica Dictionary, the Cool Antarctica website, and The Allusionist podcast, which has explored linguistic life on the ice in its episode, “Getting Toasty.”

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What's the Longest Word in the World? Here are 12 of Them, By Category
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Rebecca O'Connell

Antidisestablishmentarianism, everyone’s favorite agglutinative, entered the pop culture lexicon on August 17, 1955, when Gloria Lockerman, a 12-year-old girl from Baltimore, correctly spelled it on The $64,000 Question as millions of people watched from their living rooms. At 28 letters, the word—which is defined as a 19th-century British political movement that opposes proposals for the disestablishment of the Church of England—is still regarded as the longest non-medical, non-coined, nontechnical word in the English language, yet it keeps some robust company. Here are some examples of the longest words by category.

1. METHIONYLTHREONYLTHREONYGLUTAMINYLARGINYL … ISOLEUCINE 

Note the ellipses. All told, the full chemical name for the human protein titin is 189,819 letters, and takes about three-and-a-half hours to pronounce. The problem with including chemical names is that there’s essentially no limit to how long they can be. For example, naming a single strand of DNA, with its millions and millions of repeating base pairs, could eventually tab out at well over 1 billion letters.

2. LOPADOTEMACHOSELACHOGALEOKRANIOLEIPSAN …P TERYGON

The longest word ever to appear in literature comes from Aristophanes’ play, Assemblywomen, published in 391 BC. The Greek word tallies 171 letters, but translates to 183 in English. This mouthful refers to a fictional fricassee comprised of rotted dogfish head, wrasse, wood pigeon, and the roasted head of a dabchick, among other culinary morsels. 

3. PNEUMONOULTRAMICROSCOPICSILICOVOLCANOCONIOSIS

At 45 letters, this is the longest word you’ll find in a major dictionary. An inflated version of silicosis, this is the full scientific name for a disease that causes inflammation in the lungs owing to the inhalation of very fine silica dust. Despite its inclusion in the dictionary, it’s generally considered superfluous, having been coined simply to claim the title of the longest English word.

4. PARASTRATIOSPHECOMYIA STRATIOSPHECOMYIOIDES 

The longest accepted binomial construction, at 42 letters, is a species of soldier fly native to Thailand. With a lifespan of five to eight days, it’s unlikely one has ever survived long enough to hear it pronounced correctly.

5. PSEUDOPSEUDOHYPOPARATHYROIDISM

This 30-letter thyroid disorder is the longest non-coined word to appear in a major dictionary.

6. FLOCCINAUCINIHILIPILIFICATION

By virtue of having one more letter than antidisestablishmentarianism, this is the longest non-technical English word. A mash-up of five Latin roots, it refers to the act of describing something as having little or no value. While it made the cut in the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster volumes refuse to recognize it, chalking up its existence to little more than linguistic ephemera.

7. SUBDERMATOGLYPHIC

At 17 characters, this is the longest accepted isogram, a word in which every letter is used only once, and refers to the underlying dermal matrix that determines the pattern formed by the whorls, arches, and ridges of our fingerprints. 

8. SQUIRRELLED

Though the more commonly accepted American English version carries only one L, both Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries recognize this alternate spelling and condone its one syllable pronunciation (think “world”), making it the longest non-coined monosyllabic English word at 11 letters.

9. ABSTENTIOUS

One who doesn’t indulge in excesses, especially food and drink; at 11 letters this is the longest word to use all five vowels in order exactly once.

10. ROTAVATOR 

A type of soil tiller, the longest non-coined palindromic word included in an English dictionary tallies nine letters. Detartrated, 11 letters, appears in some chemical glossaries, but is generally considered too arcane to qualify.

11. and 12. CWTCH, EUOUAE

The longest words to appear in a major dictionary comprised entirely of either vowels or consonants. A Cwtch, or crwth, is from the Welsh word for a hiding place. Euouae, a medieval musical term, is technically a mnemonic, but has been accepted as a word in itself. 

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