Fun Etymology Tuesday – Electricity

Hello fantastic fellows!
P1: If it’s Tuesday the HLC posts a Fun Etymology.
P2: It’s Tuesday
C: The HLC posts a Fun Etymology

Today’s word is “electricity”.

It’s hard to overstate the revolution electricity brought about in the course of human history. Our entire civilisation runs on it: I’m using it to write this post now, you’re using it to read it, and we’re all using it to keep warm, to have light at night, to cook, to pump water in our houses, to drive our cars, and millions of other things. And to think that just a century and a half ago it was nothing more than an academic curiosity!*

It is a testament to the capacity of the human mind to get used to just about anything that we wake up every day in a world in which people move from one continent to another in giant metal birds powered by the chained might of lightning and we still manage to be bored.

The discovery of electricity goes back surprisingly far in history, to the time of our favourite nerd-jocks: the Ancient Greeks. They discovered that when you rub a piece of amber on a rough cloth, it develops the property of attracting other materials, including water. This is due to what we today call static electricity or the triboelectric effect. It has to do with electron exchange, look it up! It’s really cool.
In Ancient Greek, the word for “amber” was “elektron”, so this property was called “electricity”, the property of being amber-like. This name was given to it by the English scientist William Gilbert, who first brought electricity to the academic world in 1600. Fun fact: in his “His Dark Materials” trilogy, Philip Pullman gives a different etymology to the word “electric”, which becomes “ambaric”, directly from “amber” (which comes from Arabic ‘anbar. Double etymology!)

It took millennia before someone discovered this property of amber was the same thing that made lightning work, when Benjamin Franklin famously tied a key to a kite string and let it fly in a lightning storm, demonstrating that lightning is electrical because it grounds itself through metal.
Don’t do this at home kids, it’s a miracle he survived.

*Which reminds me of something that really grinds my gears: when people disparage pure theoretical research as useless. “Why do we pour so much money in smashing particles together when we could spend it on hunger relief?” Well, if people in the 1800s hadn’t poured resources in useless (at the time) stuff like electricity, our modern civilisation wouldn’t even exist, and with it, all the benefits that it brings. Including hunger relief!

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