A Day Made Out of Diamonds

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


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jayne Cotten
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 14:21:03

    Speaking of diamonds, I have read that they formed between 1 billion and 3.3 billion years ago. Thought provoking to consider that the stone I wear every day is that old, pre-historic in fact. I have also read that diamonds are so dense that they slow down the speed of light to half its normal speed. I am wearing a piece of magic ; – )


  2. wordconnections
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 14:39:36

    Sounds like you’re adamantly in favor of diamonds. I like your phrase “wearing a piece of magic.”


  3. allen josephs
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 17:26:24

    Wonder why Spanish often uses brillante instead of diamante?


  4. wordconnections
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 19:56:41

    It’s not unusual for languages to use an adjective as an abbreviated version of a noun phrase. Compare how in English a flat tire becomes a flat. From phrases like the reverend Mr. Smith, meaning the Mr. Smith who ought to be revered, English abstracted the noun reverend. The Spanish use of brillante as a noun would have originated as shorthand for the concept of “a brilliant jewel.”


  5. Trackback: adamar « Spanish-English Word Connections
  6. frameofnature
    Jan 13, 2011 @ 21:40:50

    Neat post! I found you randomly through tag surfer and am enjoying your blog very much.

    Whenever I come across adamas/adamant- in my Latin or Greek studies I laugh a little, thinking of Wolverine (from the X-Men), whose skeleton has been fused with the fictional alloy adamantium. I hadn’t made the connection to “diamond.”


    • wordconnections
      Jan 13, 2011 @ 21:57:40

      Thanks for the comment. Even though the ostensible theme of my blog is connections between Spanish and English, those connections often lead back to Latin and Greek, as you’re aware. I hadn’t heard of the fictional adamantium, but I’m adamant in supporting people’s right to use the word.


  7. Trackback: pávido e impávido « Spanish-English Word Connections

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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