This word really seems like a name for an Asterix character with a particularly mordant turn of phrase. Well, that would be Sardonix with an i, but you can see what I mean, anyway: it has an obvious taste of sardonic. And yet those people who use the word seem never to acknowledge that. Rather, it’s more likely to show up in some lapidary prose or verse where the author is talking a purple streak, and you just want to claw your way out of it. Something like this:
Within the car
Sat Pharaoh, whose bare head was girt around
By a crown of iron; and his sable hair,
Like strakey as a mane, fell where it would,
And somewhat hid his glossy sun-brent neck
And carcanet of precious sardonyx.
I didn’t make that up – it’s from “Joseph and His Brethren” by Charles Jeremiah Wells. Yes, he really wrote “And somewhat hid his glossy sun-brent neck And carcanet of precious sardonyx.” It’s OK, you can snicker: “Yeah, that’s good poetry. Somewhat good. Not.” It does inspire sardonics, doesn’t it?
I mean, really, that’s about as oily and dense as sardines. Which would be fitting, actually, since sardine may be related to Sardinia (the name of a Mediterranean island), which is also related to sardonic (there was a certain plant said to be from Sardinia that, if you ate it, would give you facial convulsions resembling derisive laughter and you would perhaps somewhat die; from that it came to be a reference to the actual kind of laughter that would produce those convulsions).
But is sardonyx also related to Sardinia? No, it’s related to Lydia and fingernails. I don’t mean Lydia the tattooed lady, though. Rather, the sard part is the name of a red kind of chalcedony, taken from the capital of ancient Lydia, called Σάρδεις in Greek and Sardis in Latin. The onyx part is from Greek for “fingernail” (as in onychogryphosis and onychophagia); as you likely know, it’s also a gem stone, a kind of chalcedony too – a streaky one. Usually it has streaks of black and white. But when the streaks are red instead, it’s sardonyx.
The word does have a sort of timeless or ancient quality to it, true. It makes me think of Sargon, the name of a king of ancient Akkadia and also of a character in a Star Trek episode. But it also makes me think of Sark, one of the Channel Islands and also a Scots word for a chemise (as in cutty sark). (That may in turn make one think of Nicholas Sarkozy.) And it brings to mind sarcastic and sarcophagus, Sargasso Sea and sardine and sergeant…
But it is the onyx, compact like a lynx, and sharp like its claws, that catches the eyes. Any word ending in yx is likely to, be it Styx or apteryx; this one has the added catch of being two pairs of letters each in reversed order (no and xy), and just incidentally it’s also the beginning of xynomavro backwards (but where sardonyx names a stone, orvamonyx would just get you stoned).
This word, then, takes the rounded sard, a word that may seem white like lard but that has sharp edges, and presses it in against onyx, red in tooth and especially claw, to name a stone made of red sard and white onyx in layers, pressed together, stratified like a Jell-O dessert, strawberry and blancmange, a little gem from a near-forgotten ancient world that you may set in the breastplate of your verse:
Dim glimmerings of lost jewels, far within
The sleeping waters, diamond, sardonyx,
Ruby and topaz, pearl and chrysolite,
Once glittering at the banquet on fair brows
That long ago were dust; and all around
Strewn on the surface of that silent sea
Are withering bridal wreaths, and glossy locks
Shorn from dear brows by loving hands, and scrolls
O’erwritten, haply with fond words of love
And vows of friendship, and fair pages flung
Fresh from the printer’s engine. There they lie
A moment, and then sink away from sight.
(From “The Flood of Years,” by William Cullen Bryant.)