Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
Even if you aren’t much of a fan of comic books or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you’ve probably heard the word adamantium before; it’s the fictional metal that covers Wolverine’s skeleton. Adamantium is supposed to be the hardest substance on the planet, meaning that his retractable claws can cut through just about anything.
Though adamantium doesn’t exist, its name is well-made, with historical roots that connect it with the actual hardest known substance on Earth.
Long ago, the Greek word adamas — a noun form of an adjective that means “unbreakable” — was the name used for a hypothetical hardest material. This entered Latin as adamantem, then Old French as adamant, which was borrowed into English in the 14th century. That word adamant still exists in English today, of course, but it indicates something only figuratively hard: it’s an adjective meaning “unshakeable, unyielding.”
So when the good folks at Marvel Comics needed to cover Wolverine’s skeleton with an unbreakable metal, it didn’t take an etymological deep dive to add -ium, a scientific suffix indicating a metallic element, to the end of adamant.
But thousands of years before comic books, there was a problem with adamas: It was a name for the hypothetical hardest substance on Earth, but it took time for the multitude of stones and metals to be discovered and studied, and still more for scientific measurement to make accurate comparisons possible. When diamonds reached Western civilization about two millennia ago, they were called adamas, but so were a number of other hard substances.
But people understood that those clear, sparkly stones of almost pure carbon were something special. So about the 4th or 5th centuries A.D., they started using the Late Latin word diamas to differentiate diamonds from other hard substances called adamant — probably influenced by the other dia- words derived from Greek. Diamas became diamant in Middle French, which was borrowed as diamaunt into Middle English, which became our diamond, the name for the hardest known substance on the planet.
Marvel Comics has come out with a few fictional mutants who can turn their flesh into diamonds, the most prominent being Emma Frost, but there hasn’t yet been a definitive battle between one of these characters and Wolverine to decide which is harder: adamantium or diamond.
Featured image: Ty Lim / Shutterstock
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