Jewish World Review June 9, 2002 / 9 Sivan, 5763
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
"Clotheshorse"; a god named "Ammonia"?
Human beings have probably enjoyed showing off their clothes since they learned to wear them. It seems that many people adhere to the philosophy voiced by the character Polonius in Shakespeare's Hamlet, "The apparel oft proclaims the man."
Both "clotheshorse" (in your sense) and "fashion plate" date back to around the middle of the 19th century. "Clotheshorse" originally referred only to a wooden frame upon which clothes are hung to dry.
The first known printed use of the term in this sense appeared in 1775. By 1850 the figurative sense of the word, meaning "a conspicuously dressed person," had developed, and it appeared in the writing of Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle, who wrote of "idlers, game-preservers, and mere human clothes-horses."
Presumably the figurative use was intended to imply that the person's main function was simply to wear clothes. Today the term probably has a less negative connotation.
"Fashion plate" is also a figurative reference to an inanimate object. In the 1800s, when this term entered the language, there were no fashion magazines as we think of them today, but there were books targeted for a female audience, such as the famous "Godey's Lady's Book." The fashions of the day were shown through illustrations called "plates."
A "fashion plate," then, was literally an artist's illustration of people in fashionable clothing, and later figuratively a person who looked as if he or she had just stepped out of such a picture.
Q. I once heard a story some years ago about the origin of the word "ammonia." As I recall, it came from the name of some Greek or Roman god. Can you verify this?
The history of "ammonia" starts with Amen, a god in Egyptian mythology variously represented as a ram with great horns, as a creature with a ram's head and a human body, or as simply a man - either enthroned or standing.
To the Greeks, Amen became known as Ammon. His chief temple and oracle were at an oasis in the Libyan desert near Memphis. It is said that near this temple a cesspool was located, where the urine of camels was collected. For centuries in Egypt camel's urine, soot, and sea salt were heated together to form sal ammoniac, which in its Latin form literally means "salt of Ammon."
To designate the gas produced when sal ammoniac is heated with an alkali, the Swedish chemist Tobern Olaf Bergman in 1782 coined the New Latin term "ammonia." In less than two decades "ammonia" entered English.
The modern names of other chemical elements and compounds have their origins in the lore of the ancient world. Another example is "cadmium." In Greek mythology Cadmus was the reputed founder of the Greek city of Thebes. His most celebrated exploit was his battle with a man-eating dragon.
After slaying the monster, he removed its teeth and shoveled some of them in the ground. From these sown teeth sprang up a company of armed men. Cadmus reacted by surreptitiously striking them with stones; the men, suspecting one another, began a mutual slaughter until only five remained.
With these five men Cadmus founded his new city of Thebes. The ancient citadel of Thebes was named Cadmea in his honor. It was in this Greek city that the ancients first discovered the substance known to us as zinc oxide.
For zinc oxide, or for any ore abounding in zinc, the ancients used the Latin word "cadmia," after Thebes' legendary founder. It was not until centuries later, in 1817, that the German chemist Friedrich Stromeyer discovered the presence of another metal in a zinc compound, which in this case happened to be zinc carbonate. Stromeyer called this new discovery "cadmium," the old name for any zinc-rich ore.
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