In a Word: Electricity from Rock to Shock

How do you use an ancient language to name a new discovery like electricity?

An electric light bulb hangs from the ceiling before a brick wall.
diPersika / Shutterstock

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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.

Electricity is so ubiquitous in the developed world that we often take it for granted … except, of course, when it goes out.

In the grand scale of human history, the ability to harness electricity to power human mechanisms and technology is a fairly recent innovation, and channeling electricity into the homes of the populace even more so. It wasn’t until 1925 that more than half of American homes had electric power.

But as recent as common access to electrical power is, that name electricity finds its roots in a language from a time long before light bulbs, ceiling fans, and electric toothbrushes.

Early work with electricity was performed largely by scientists in the educated classes, who had not only the received knowledge of earlier scientists but the budgets (or the backers) to perform experiments and to publish findings. And for a long time, the lingua franca of the educated classes was Latin.

In 1600, English physicist William Gilbert coined the Modern Latin word electricus in a treatise called De Magnete (“Of Magnets”). Electricus was created from the noun electrum, the Latin word for “amber,” which in turn comes from the Greek elektron. Electricus translates to “resembling amber.”

How does electricity resemble amber?

People have long known that if you rub amber against certain substances — wool for example — then other light substances will be attracted to it. If you’ve ever rubbed a balloon on your head and then stuck it to a wall, you understand how this property can work: It’s static electricity (or until the mid-1800s statical electricity), or more accurately the triboelectric effect, and this type of magnetism was man’s first exposure to the properties of electricity.

Gilbert’s word caught on in 17th-century academia, even after electricity’s other properties were one by one revealed. And by the 1640s, the English forms electricity and electric were in use.

Two centuries later, in 1821 (the same year the Post was first published), we find the first known written use of the word electromagnetism. To physicists of the early 17th century, the word might have sounded intolerably redundant, but by the 19th century, it was a useful coinage to specifically describe the relationship of electricity to magnetism.

Shocking, I know.

Featured image: diPersika / Shutterstock

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  1. Pretty interesting article,indeed. I really love the word ‘electricus’ but not as much as I liked playing with electrical outlets, plugs, taking out light bulbs, and (sometimes) playing with matches as a boy. I got shocked once, but as a teen (to this day) much prefer the rock of the Electric Light Orchestra instead Andy. NO question about that.


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