Etymology of Plasma

“Some people,” Miss R said, “run to conceits or wisdom but I hold to the hard, brown, nutlike word. I might point out that there is enough aesthetic excitement here to satisfy anyone but a damned fool.”

–Donald Barthelme, “The Indian Uprising.”

Case in point: The word “plasma.” According to the OED, its meaning in classical Latin was an “affected modulation of the voice.” In post-classical Latin it also meant “creature” and “poetic fiction.”

In English, originally, it meant a pot. Or “anything shaped or molded.” Later, long before it came to be associated with blood or the breath of the sun, it also meant in English “a green variety of chalcedony,  valued as a semi-precious stone, and formerly used for carving into intaglios.” In this sense it was short for plasma emerald.

At first glance, this is an astonishing, not to say baffling, range of meanings. It all—well, nearly all—makes sense, though, when you know that it comes from a Greek word meaning “to mold or shape.” It’s the same root as “plastic,” which once meant “malleable.” (Still does, to neuroscientists at least. And soil scientists, actually. And others, I’m sure.) All these things—phony voices, created beings, poetic fictions, and pots—come from being shaped, literally or metaphorically. Something of the same range of associations can be seen in the constellation of meanings floating—rather like a plasma, come to think of it—around the words fact, fiction,* factory, and factitious, which means fake.

* Turns out I was mistaken about the etymology of “fiction.” See my comment at the end of this article.

The one exception is the plasma emerald, which the OED suspects actually derives from a different word. But to get to that conclusion they cite a book on French etymology—in German (Französisches etymologisch Wörterbuch). So I’ll stop there.

Another meaning, derived from pot, is “vessel” or “vehicle,” which is why we have blood plasma (the stuff that the blood cells float in), ion plasma (free electrons and positive ions floating in a gaseous cloud), and—perhaps my favorite—soil plasma, the stuff between the grains in dirt. Or, to quote the OED: “The colloidal or relatively soluble material between grains of a soil.” (Colloid comes from the Greek for “glue.”)

The term “vehicle” used in this sense leads me to wonder why we don’t have paint plasma. And that reminds me of the “paint mine” in William Dean Howells’ novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham.

“And you say, Mr. Lapham, that you discovered this mineral paint on the old farm yourself?”

Lapham acquiesced in the return to business. “I didn’t discover it,” he said scrupulously. “My father found it one day, in a hole made by a tree blowing down. There it was, lying loose in the pit, and sticking to the roots that had pulled up a big, cake of dirt with ’em. I don’t know what give him the idea that there was money in it, but he did think so from the start. I guess, if they’d had the word in those days, they’d considered him pretty much of a crank about it. He was trying as long as he lived to get that paint introduced; but he couldn’t make it go. The country was so poor they couldn’t paint their houses with anything; and father hadn’t any facilities. It got to be a kind of joke with us; and I guess that paint-mine did as much as any one thing to make us boys clear out as soon as we got old enough.”

My wife’s a painter, and this reference to a “paint mine” caused us quite a bit of puzzled hilarity when I was in graduate school studying American literature. It’s at the heart of the book—it’s the source of the main character’s wealth—yet critical sources are surprisingly quiet on the subject. We couldn’t figure out what a “paint mine” was supposed to be. It was during these conversations, in fact, when she introduced me to the use of “vehicle” to describe the stuff paint pigment floats in. We tried to decide whether the stuff under the tree was pigment or vehicle. We never could make up our minds. (Wikipedia, which did not exist when I was in graduate school, sheds little light on the problem. It does inform me that “water glass” or sodium silicate seems to be an important vehicle for mineral paint, but I see no reference to it occurring naturally, as something you could mine.)

In any event, now that I’ve spent some time reading about the etymology of “plasma,” it seems a fitting synonym for “vehicle” in this context, pretty much the same as blood or soil plasma.

So there you have it. A sweeping epic of a word, I’d say. What an astonishing range of associations, what a history of development! How infinite in faculty! In form and meaning how express and admirable! In action … Well, that’s enough of that. But seriously—it’s really something.

Oh! By the way, speaking of something …I’ve been a fan of Robert Pinsky for years, since I wandered, quite unaware, into a reading he was giving at the legendary and now sadly defunct Cody’s Books in downtown Berkeley. But he really won me over years later when, in an interview with University of Oregon TV (around 10:20), he spent some time talking about the absolutely fascinating etymology of the word “thing.” It was a delight to discover he shared my excitement at learning the history of that word (and “immediate,” which he says he was nearly middle-aged before he realized it contained the word “medium”).

I once asked a colleague how much time she figured she spent each day thinking about etymology. She looked at me like I was crazy. But it’s an amazing thing to contemplate. Like the etymology of the word “couch grass,” as in Thomas Hardy’s beautiful poem, “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’”

I
Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.

II
Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.

III
Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.

Couch-grass, it turns out, is an etymologically reflexive word: its history mirrors its meaning.  “A species of grass ( Triticum repens) with long creeping root-stocks, a common and troublesome weed in cornfields.” Or, as H. Lyte wrote in 1578, “Couche grasse…is a noughty and hurtful weede to corne.” (“Corne” does not mean “corn” here. It means “wheat,” deriving from the same root as “kernel.” When I first got my condensed copy of the OED, I spent an afternoon reading the entry for “corn.” Fascinating word. And don’t get me started on “noughty,” the reason I had to include that quote.) Forms include couch, quitch, quick, scutch, squitch, twitch… The word seems to have branched and spread like the grass it names.

As do all words—and, like the “noughty and hurtful weede,” they intertwine with each other, trading nutrients and microbes, choking and nourishing each other, grafting on to each other and producing startling new hybrids… They form an amazing tangled universe just beneath our consciousness, which is part of why I am in such sympathy with Barthelme’s Miss R.

Of course, it’s quite possible Barthelme did not mean—if he meant anything at all—all this delving into history, but the opposite, of sorts: the pure aesthetic pleasure of an irreducible linguistic object, as smooth and hard to our mental ear as a nut is to our fingers. But it’s hard to imagine he’d believe so readily in irreducibility of that sort. And what’s inside a nut, anyway, if not whole forests, other nuts both past and future…

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One thought on “Etymology of Plasma

  1. Well, it turns out that my memory was playing tricks on me, and “fiction” does not come from the same root as “fact,” though they are close in both sound and meaning, going all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, according to the American Heritage Dictionary. “Fact,” “factory,” and “factitious” come from “facere,” to make; “fiction” comes from “fingĕre,” to fashion or form. According to AHD, these go back to, respectively, “dhe” (to set, put) and “dheigh” (to knead clay). Interestingly, the latter is also part of the root of “lady”–it’s the source of the -dy ending. But that’s another story.

    The Hardy poem is formatted incorrectly, because I can’t figure out how to convince WordPress I really want non-breaking spaces at the start of some lines…

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