Monday, July 14, 2008

Jet Set

Jet black does not refer to dark clouds of smoke billowing from airplane engines. As it turns out, jet has a rich variety of meanings.

The jet in jet black refers to a hard compact black form of coal capable of receiving a brilliant polish. In the Middle Ages, it was considered a cure for fevers and for other illnesses. You had to burn it to make it work. It is now used to make toys, buttons, and personal ornaments, and it has the property of attracting light bodies when electrified by rubbing. As a color word, it also applies to marble.

As 18th century slang, jet designated either a lawyer or a clergyman, probably in reference to the black robes that they wore professionally.

The word seems to have started as a Greek word, gagate--a black stone--then passed through Old French and into Old English. Gagate is not a misspelling of agate, by the way.

Another form of the word came from a French term meaning to throw or cast. One of its uses is to describe water spurting from a small orifice. It is also the jet embedded in jet stream, and it accounts for the jet in jet engine.

Another form of jet seems to have come from the Latin jactare, to brag or boast, and it was used to describe a strutting, ostentatious walk.


Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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