In a Word: The Hardest Substance on the Planet

Discover the etymological connection between the hardest substance in the Marvel Universe and in reality.

Wolverine action figure

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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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Comments

  1. Personally I had NOT heard of ‘adamantium’ before; just adamant. Haven’t seen any of the Marvel comic books, but the film trailers show me all I need to know. They kind of all look alike where it doesn’t matter at which point you start watching. You just sit there with all of the (no longer) ‘special effects’ just endlessly coming at you. I did a double take at first when this feature appeared today, but quickly realized it was your column after all; of course.

    I suppose it all started with ‘Star Wars’. My friends were curious to see what all the fuss was about, and ‘treated’ me to it on my 20th birthday the day after it opened! It was one of those films you HAD to see. We weren’t impressed, much preferring George Lucas’s “American Grafitti” or Brian De Palma’s ‘Carrie’ with stories you can follow without gimmicks. It was a precursor to the overstimulation saturation look-alike films like ‘Lord of the Rings’, ‘Transformers’ and endless sequels and prequels. CGI and pyrotechics have destroyed most movies, sorry.

    Speaking of films, my late father (an attorney) had a client in show business who referred a couple of stars to him because they didn’t trust the lawyers at the studios. Such was the case with Elizabeth Taylor, desperately trying to get out of her contract with MGM forcing her to make ‘Butterfield 8’ in which she felt the role was punishment for her real life role in the Debbie/Eddie debacle.

    Dad worked 7 days a week, bringing me to his office Saturday mornings with coloring books (so Mom could get her rest). I was 2 1/2 when Ms. Taylor stopped by in late 1959. He went over everything and it was iron clad. She HAD to make the picture. Unhappy, he brought me out to lift her mood before leaving. As a mother herself, it did the trick. Unfortunately, I have no memory of meeting the legendary star; none.

    So this brings us to diamonds, and not necessarily white. Diamas! Diamant! Diamaunt! They all sound great and really should make a comeback. I love my onyx men’s diamond ring and cuff links. Dad never went in for the swanky men’s jewelry like the Rat Pack guys. He liked flashy cars though. Those ’61-’69 Lincolns with the suicide doors? So beautiful. I have a RAV-4 by comparison. Shouldn’t complain. Had a ’65 LeMans sport coupe, ’68 Camaro RS and ’69 GTO at one time. Oh! Do check out ‘Butterfied 8’ starting with the trailers.

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