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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(adj.) emerald green

Something described as smaragdine is the colour of an emerald.

That’s an unusual-sounding word, and just about as far removed from the (considerably more euphonious) word emerald that you can get. So where did it come from?

There’s actually a lengthy history to report here. Back in the Middle English period, smaragdine—or even just smaragd—was a noun not an adjective, used to refer to an emerald stone or, probably more frequently, any green mineral or gemstone.

That name derives from the Latin word for an emerald, smaragdus; it in turn comes from the Greek smaragdos; and that in turn was probably borrowed into Greek from some even more ancient root, like the Sanskrit maragdam or Ancient Semitic baraq. We’re so far back in linguistic history here (the Semitic languages are among the oldest we know about, and developed in Mesopotamia in the thirtieth century BC) that the meaning begins to far apart slightly here. Straining under a millennium or two of conjecture, that ancient Semitic root baraq probably meant simply ‘shine’ or ‘shining one’, and was more likely applied to any glistening mineral, not just an emerald.

Retrace that history back towards English, of course, and things start to fall back into place—but around 1,000 years ago, things diverged.

On the one hand, the Latin smaragdus found its way into English and became the word smaragdine, eventually producing the adjective at the top of this page. On another hand, however, smaragdus found its way into medieval French, and there fell victim to a curious phonological process known as prothetic excrescence.

Prothesis is the addition of a sound to the very beginning of a word, and excrescence describes the addition of a vowel sound in particular. Put another way, French—along with all the other Romance languages, for that matter—had a tendency to add extra vowel sounds to the fronts of words that didn’t already have them.

This process proved especially fruitful in French when it came to Latin and Germanic loanwords beginning with a “s” sound followed by another consonant (usually, but not always a ‘stop’ or plosive sound). Too complicated? In simple terms, around 1,000 years ago, if French picked up a word from one of its neighbouring languages that began with the combination S + another consonant, then there was a good chance it was going to add a vowel sound to the front of it just to make it easier to pronounce, and fit more easily into the French vocabulary.

Smaragdus fit this bill perfectly, and it so underwent this French prothetic excrescence and gained an initial E. Nor was it alone, either: this process explains the initial Es in a host of French loanwords, like esquire, espionage, eschew, espouse and especially especial.

English then picked up this newly francophone word esmeraude sometime around the early 1300s, and given a century or so development since, it has morphed into the word emerald.

So despite their considerably different sounds and appearances in English today, both the adjective smaragdine and the word to which it relates, emerald, derive from the same root.

Just when you think you’ve got English all figured out, along comes a madcap story like this one, eh?

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