The other day I heard—on television I think it was—the alliterative and poetic phrase “a day made out of diamonds.” People who have studied the most common classical elements in our learned vocabulary know that dia- in Greek-derived compounds usually means ‘through, across, over.’ Familiar examples from geometry are the diámetro/diameter that ‘measures [the distance] across [a circle]’ and the diagonal that goes ‘across [from one] angle [to another].’ Yet as sparkling an intellectual achievement as geometry was and remains, not every sparkling crystal is a diamante/diamond, and the dia- in that word is not what we might think. If we trace the English version of the word back, the dia- was already there in Middle English diamaunt, and in Old French diamant, and even in the Medieval Latin noun diamas, with stem diamant-, that also gave rise to Spanish diamante. But farther back in our diacrónico/diachronic search ‘across time’ we can’t go, because Medieval Latin diamant- was an alteration of Latin and Greek adamant-, which the ancients used to designate ‘very hard iron or steel.’ The Greek word was made up of a- ‘not’ and a root dam- that meant ‘to conquer, to tame.’ The ancients also applied the term to the ‘unconquerable’ diamond, which is among the hardest materials known, and the changed version of their word is still with us in that sense. Likewise with us is a derivative of the unaltered original, adamantino/adamantine, which means ‘hard, unyielding, persistent’; Spanish also uses the form diamantino. More common is the English adjective adamant ‘persistent, inflexible, unalterably determined,’ with corresponding noun adamance.
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman