Sunday, November 22, 2020

metal and metzolah

When I was a kid, I realized that while I clearly knew what "metal" was, it was difficult to define. 

Metal is hard? Well, so is wood. Shiny? So is glass. Hard and shiny? Well, diamonds aren't metal. Can be bent? Well, I can't bend a penny, but I can bend plastic. Metals can have different colors (gold, silver, etc.), so that can't be it. But if you put two forks in front of me, one metal and one from another material, I could easily tell them apart.

I later learned that there are scientific definitions that identify what a metal is. Certain physical characteristics weren't evident to me at that age - like how well they conduct electricity or the high melting point. And at the most basic level, metals are certain elements in the periodic table, specifically those that lose electrons easily and can therefore form metallic bonds. 

Even reading about the meaning of metal in chemistry and physics today, I'm not sure how much I really understand. But my early exploration into the meaning of the word then has taught me a lesson that I certainly do carry with me now - the significance of semantics. While sometimes semantics is used to indicate pettiness, it's actually rather important. It's the branch of linguistics concerned with "meaning." In some ways, it's as much associated with philosophy as the study of language. We tend to think that words equal their meaning. And this can actually lead to intense debates, when one person thinks a word means one thing, and someone else thinks it means another. (Consider the debate about whether a hot dog is a sandwich.)

But not only are words generally not that precise, in many cases, they can't be. This is demonstrated by the paradox of the heap, in which it's not possible to define how many grains of sand are in a heap (does one less make it no longer a heap?)

So while many people find themselves arguing over the meaning or usage of a word, I don't find myself pulled into those debates - even though, as an amateur linguist, I'm frequently asked to adjudicate them. I certainly fall into the "descriptivist" camp, as I'm sure many readers of this site can tell. Words constantly change meaning, and so I'd much rather view the way words interact like an observer of a National Geographic nature video than someone concerned about the way things are "supposed to be."

And maybe that understanding started back when I thought about "metal," and how our understanding of that material was based much more on our perceptions than any precise definition. 

Now while that might make a nice introduction into the psychology of my linguistic approach, it's not really a Balashon post. So I was rather surprised, when I took a more recent look into the meaning of "metal", that it may have a Hebrew origin!

The Online Etymology Dictionary provides the following entry:

an undecomposable elementary substance having certain recognizable qualities (opacity, conductivity, plasticity, high specific gravity, etc.), mid-13c., from Old French metal "metal; material, substance, stuff" (12c.), from Latin metallum "metal, mineral; mine, quarry," from Greek metallon "metal, ore" (senses found only in post-classical texts, via the notion of "what is got by mining"); originally "mine, quarry-pit," probably a back-formation from metalleuein "to mine, to quarry," a word of unknown origin. 

Klein (in his CEDEL) picks up the "unknown origin" and gives his explanation:

It [metallon (= mine, quarry)] is perhaps a loan word from Hebrew metzolah מצולה, "depth"... Hebrew metzolah is related to tzula צולה, "ocean deep," and to Hebrew tzalal צלל, "he sank." 

The root tzalal - "to sink, plunge; to settle" also took on the sense of "to clear, clarify." (I assume from the sediment sinking to the bottom of the liquid.) That gives us the word tzalul - "clear, lucid."

It's nice to think that I can associate the Hebrew word for clarity with the English word metal, considering its meaning was anything but clear to me when I was young...

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