Brimstone, vitriol, and strong water

By | August 30, 2013

If you enjoy reading about history or reading old books—histories, books about science, even novels—you’ve probably encountered some of the wonderful old chemical terms that were in use before our current chemical notation was developed. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Aqua fortis and aqua regia: Two powerful acids, nitric acid and a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acids. They translate as strong water and royal water, respectively; the latter comes from the fact that it could dissolve the royal metal, gold. Don’t mess with these “waters”!
  • Vitriol: Another acid, sulfuric acid. The fact that this word is now used metaphorically to describe harsh criticism is perhaps a clue to how very corrosive such criticism can be. The word derives from an alternative form of the Latin vitreolum, the neuter form of the adjective vitreolus, or glassy, presumably because sulfuric acid is a viscous liquid that is colorless or pale yellow.
  • Brimstone: Plain old sulfur. Looks kind of funny without “fire and” in front of it, doesn’t it? The sulfurous smell of gases venting from volcanoes may have inspired the use of this word to describe the torments of hell. The word comes from the Old English brynstán, or literally burnstone.
Photograph of the flowers of blue plumbago.

Plumbago auriculata, aka blue plumbago or Cape plumbago. It will not do squat for lead poisoning, but it’s a perfectly nice flowering shrub nonetheless. ©Stephanie Watson Photography under a Creative Commons license.

  • Plumbago: Graphite, one of the well-known forms of carbon. The word comes from the Latin word plumbum, for lead, because graphite resembles certain lead ores. Plumbago is also the name of a type of plant, aka leadwort. This name also derives from plumbum, perhaps because the roots of the plant turn the hands gray when they are handled, or because of a mistaken belief that it was efficacious against lead poisoning.
  •  Sal volatile and salt of hartshorn: Ammonium carbonate, which was used as a smelling salt. I first encountered sal volatile in some old novel (probably in the context of a young lady withdrawing a vial of it from her reticule to aid a companion who was overcome by faintness, perhaps when she saw the gentlemen she esteemed heartlessly dancing with another). I had no idea what it was or how on earth it worked. All was made clear when I learned that it was the pungent odor of ammonia that brought young ladies back from their swoons. Aqueous ammonia was known as spirit of hartshorn because it was distilled from the horns and hooves of male red deer, or harts.

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