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.
To many of us, turquoise — that mottled blue stone used in jewelry — is so identified with the American Southwest that it might be surprising to learn that the stone has been mined in Europe, Asia, and Africa for thousands of years. Even the word turquoise dates back to 14th-century England, before “the New World” even existed for Europeans.
Turquoise stone first found its way through Europe from eastern traders, or at least what Christian Europeans believed to be Eastern traders. “Eastern” in the 14th century meant that they came either from or through the Ottoman Empire. Founded in 1299, the Ottoman Empire would expand until the end of World War I to encompass large swaths of Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, Western Asia, and the Middle East.
For our purposes, more important than Medieval geopolitics is that the Ottoman Empire was also called the Turkish Empire, and exotic trade items that appeared to come from the area were often referred to as turkish.
And that’s what happened with those pretty blue and green stones: When traders brought them to France, they were referred to in Old French as pierre turqueise. While that name may sound more like an antagonist for Hercule Poirot than something you’d make a necklace from, that pierre has a meaning beyond a man’s name: Like the English name Peter, pierre traces back to the Greek petros “rock or stone.” Pierre turqueise simply means “Turkish stone.” Eventually, it just became turquoise, the adjective becoming a noun.
(If this story sounds familiar, it might be because the word turkey followed a similar route.)
The same linguistic metamorphosis happened in other European languages too. In Spain, it was turquesa; in German, Türkis; and in Middle English, the stone was called turkeis. But by 1560, the version that reflected the spelling and pronunciation of French — the prestige language at the time — had replaced it in England, and the stone was called turquoise.
Today some of the world’s most prolific turquoise mines can be found in Arizona and Nevada, but it’s still mined in China, the Middle East, and elsewhere.
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