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.
In Greek mythology, Dionysus, the god of grapes, wine, and drunkenness, once fell in love with — and pursued — a beautiful young mortal woman. That woman, however, wasn’t much interested. She prayed to the gods to protect her and to keep her chaste.
Artemis heard her pleas and, to save her from Dionysus, turned her into a statue made of clear quartz.
Like most mythological stories, there are multiple versions of how they played out, and this one is no different: Dionysus was upset at his loss and either poured wine upon the statue as a tribute, spilled wine on the statue while drunk, or cried tears of wine upon the statue. Regardless, the result was the same: The clear quartz was stained purple.
The woman’s name — and the name of the purple gemstone that her statue was made of — was Amethystos. In English, we just call it amethyst, and it’s the birthstone of people born in February.
A primary purpose of ancient myths was to create an explanation for things that weren’t otherwise known, and the story of Dionysus and Amethystos gave us a story about more than just the color of amethyst. The ancient Greeks believed (perhaps because amethyst is the color of watered-down wine) that amethyst was a guard against or cure for drunkenness — a characteristic that is contained in its name.
The Greek word methys means “wine,” and the derived verb meaning “to be drunk” is methyein. Add the prefix a- “not,” and you’ve got the source of the word amethyst, literally “not drunk.”
If your birthday is in February, don’t party too hard — unless, of course, you’re wearing your birthstone. It won’t protect you from inebriation, but its history could make a great bar story.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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