Hardly a word that early or even more experienced students of Spanish are likely to run into, but one that strikes my English-attuned ears as especially pleasant-sounding, is abalorio. As a count noun an abalorio is ‘a small glass bead,’ and as a mass noun abalorio means ‘beadwork.’ Although an English-language proverb would have us believe that “Big things come in small packages,” the Spanish saying “No vale un abalorio” looks on the diminutive dimension of a glass bead as something negative: the expression means that the thing being referred to is worthless or just a trifle. (An old French dictionary translates the Spanish phrase with the equivalent of “It’s not worth a piece of straw.”)
But no word is worthless to the historian of language, and the many stages in the evolution of abalorio are themselves little etymological beads strung back along the string of time. The Diccionario de la lengua española traces the word to Hispanic Arabic alballúri ‘the one made of glass,’ with the root coming from classical Arabic billawr. That wasn’t originally an Arabic word, but one that the Arabs took from Greek berullos. The American Heritage Dictionary tells us that the Greek word wasn’t original, either: the Greeks had taken it from Prakrit [any of various ancient Indic languages other than Sanskrit] veruliya. That in turn had come, with a familiar swapping of l and r, from Pali [a particular Prakrit language] veluriya, which might have been related to the Tamil [yet another Indian language] veliru that means ‘to become pale or white.’ The connection would have been the ‘paleness’ of glass and glassy substances.
If the Arabs borrowed from the Greeks, so, much more often, had the Romans; in this case they turned Greek berullos into beryllus, the forerunner of what we’ve come to call berilo/beryl. As the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica explained, beryl is “a mineral containing beryllium and aluminium in the form of a silicate; its formula is Be3 Al2 Si6 018. The species includes the emerald, the aquamarine and other transparent varieties known as ‘precious beryl,’ with certain coarse varieties unfit for use as gem-stones…. It is notable that the relation of the emerald to the beryl, though proved only by chemical analysis, was conjectured at least as far back as the time of Pliny.” Like Ruby, Beryl has served a female name in English, one example being the Kenyan aviatrix Beryl Markham.
From berilo/beryl came the slightly different berilio/beryllium that we use to designate chemical element number four; beryllium, of course is what distinguishes beryl from most other minerals.
© 2010 Steven Schwartzman