June 11, 2014

Case File #014.06.11: VOLCANO

Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and metalworking, is ultimately responsible for the English word volcano. In classical Latin, the god's name was Volcanus, and the ancient Romans often also used his name in reference to both fire and volcanoes. The common form of the Latin passed into Italian as vulcano and was used to mean “a fire- and lava-emitting mountain or fissure,” and English directly borrowed the Italian word and its meaning circa 1575. In the late seventeenth century, however, the form of the English shifted to the contemporary volcano, and in the nineteenth century, the noun took on the additional secondary sense of “anything that violently erupts or has the potential to do so.” By the way, other English words that can also be traced back to the name of ancient Rome's divine smithy are vulcanization, which is the name of the process for curing rubber by treating it with sulfur while also subjecting it to high temperatures and pressures; vulcanite, the name of a hard, black vulcanized rubber that is used in the manufacturing of combs, buttons, and insulation for electrical equipment; and, of course, Vulcans, the name of Star Trek's fictional race of extraterrestrials—one of whom is the popular Mister Spock—who are said to hail from a dry, hot planet that is reminiscent of the Roman god's fiery forges.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

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