antimony

How is antimony even an element? Or the name for one? Of all the names on the periodic table, antimony has long seemed to me to be the one that most looked like it wandered into the wrong party.

And I don’t just mean because the chemical symbol for antimony, Sb, has nothing in common with the word. Ha! That’s run-of-the-mill. Gold is Au. Lead is Pb. Mercury is Hg. Antimony’s nextdoor neighbour, tin, is Sn. We all eventually learn that these come from the Latin names for the elements, which are often entirely different: aurum, plumbum, hydrargyrum, stannum. In the case of antimony it’s stibium. But, um, gold and lead and tin don’t look anything like Latin or Greek (mercury does, but then hydrargyrum is obviously running over from Greek). Antimony kind of… does? So why does it need another Latin name?

That’s just one of several paradoxes to watch out for with this metalloid. Yes, metalloid – it’s kind of metal and kind of not (like several musical groups I could name). In some states, such as the mineral stibnite, it looks very much like metal, though it’s rather friable (crumbly). If you melt it it also looks like metal. But it has other forms; one of them is a black powder better known as kohl, which was used as eye makeup and is, for reasons I won’t trace here, from the same Arabic word that gave us alcohol. Antimony can also be in a form that will smoke when scratched and will explode when rubbed, struck, or heated (look for it in matchheads). So, naturally, antimony is used in fire retardants. It’s also used for its nonconductive properties, like most metals aren’t. And it’s included in various other commonly used alloys; you surely have some close to hand, and the odds are high it was mined in China, just by the way.

The Latin name for it, stibium, came to Latin from Greek, and to Greek probably from Egyptian. The very Latin-and-Greek-looking antimony comes to English from medieval Latin (antimonium), and there are various conjectures of how it got there (including one that it means ‘against monks’, supposedly because medieval monastic alchemists would kill themselves experimenting with it – oh, by the way, besides being explosive it’s also poisonous, which is why it was a popular laxative, and no I’m not making that up). But the most reasonable etymology traces it to Arabic aṯmad, which came from earlier iṯmid, which may well trace to Greek στίμμιδα, a variant of στίμμι, which also became στἰβι, which in turn became stibium, meaning that, way back, stibium and antimony are actually the same word, if you can believe it.

Oh, and one more thing. Antimony looks more like a philosophical concept, doesn’t it? Or some kind of state of things? Like enmity or immunity or antimatter or… antinomy?

Yes, antinomy, which comes from Greek ἀντί ‘against’ + νόμος ‘law’. It means an apparent contradiction in laws, principles, or logical conclusions – in other words, a paradox.

And antinomy looks so damn much like antimony that people mix the two up all the time. Such a close resemblance between two words so different in origin and referent oughta be against the law.

2 responses to “antimony

  1. David Milne-Ives

    Imagine ‘mundane’ being viewed as pejorative; a little knowledge of the chemical underpinnings of our everyday reality goes a long way!

  2. I think parsimony and euphonium would make similarly esoteric element names.

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