Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Alba et Albion

A listener asked about two towns in Michigan: Alba and Albion. Both came from a Latin adjective (albus, alba, album) that meant a subdued shade of white. [Candidus, which lead to words such as candid and candidate, meant dazzling white].

Starting in English with Bede’s History (900 AD), Britain was nicknamed Albion. Before that, ancient Greek writers used Ἀλβιον (Albion) as its name (6th c. BC), possibly because of the distinctive white cliffs of Dover.

The –alb- sequence shows up in a number of words.

• An alb is a white cloth vestment reaching to the feet.

• Alba is an old white garden rose now thought to be a hybrid.

• Albation was a term used by the alchemists for the alleged process of whitening metals, especially of transmuting copper into silver.

• Albedo, in astronomy, is the ratio of light (whiteness) reflected from various surfaces, and in nuclear physics, it’s the fraction of radiation reflected from an object.

• Albescent means growing or becoming white.

• Albication is the process of growing white -- the development of white or light patches, spots, streaks, bands, etc., in the foliage of plants.

• Albiflorous means bearing white flowers.

• An albino is a human being with an absence of coloring pigment in the skin, hair, and eyes, so that the skin and hair are abnormally white, and the eyes are pink and unable to bear ordinary levels of light. Two centuries ago, the word albiness designated a female. Both male and female were albinotic.

• Albocracy is government by white men or Europeans.

• Albugo was a disease of the eye, in which a white opaque spot formed upon the transparent cornea.

• Album is a blank book in which to insert autographs, memorial verses, original drawings, photographs, or other souvenirs. The female keeper of an album was called an albumess in the early 1800s.

• Albumen is the white of an egg.


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

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