The last post looked into the origins of India and some related words. The adjective corresponding to India is indio/Indian, but in perhaps the greatest and most persistent case of ambiguity in linguistic and geographical history, that adjective came to be applied to groups of people on opposite sides of the globe, one set of them in India and the other in the Americas. Blame Columbus if you like, because when he crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Spain in 1492 and landed on an island in the Caribbean, he thought he had sailed far enough westward to have reached India. What could me more natural, then, than to refer to the dark-complexioned people he found as indios/Indians? The truth became clear before too long, but not before the term had become deeply rooted enough for people to resist changing it. In the late 20th century some English-speaking groups tried to switch over to the term Native American, but it never fully caught on, and with some people it smacked and still smacks of political correctness. The term also suffers from the very ambiguity it was intended to avoid, because Anglos and blacks and Asians who are born in Tacoma or Toledo or Tulsa or Tallahassee can rightfully claim to be native Americans.
But let’s move from sociopoliticolinguistics back to etymology. From India came the ancient Greek adjective indikos ‘pertaining to India,’ and then the (neuter-gender) phrase Indikon pharmakon, which referred to ‘a certain dye that came from India.’ The noun eventually got dropped, and the Romans carried the adjective over as indicum, which now functioned as a noun in its own right. That developed to Portuguese endego, which Spanish converted to the índigo that English now uses as well, minus the accent mark, of course. The word refers to the plant from which the dye was made, and to the dye itself, and now even to the color of that dye. Indigo is represented by the I in the physics mnemonic and would-be English name ROY G. BIV.
In 1863 the German chemists Ferdinand Reich and Hieronymous Theodor Richter used the first part of the word indigo to create indium as a name for the 49th chemical element; they chose it because of the indigo-blue lines in the element’s spectrum that had led them to an awareness of its presence in an ore they were testing. Spanish followed suit and converted the name of the element to indio—yes, spelled the same as the indio discussed in the first paragraph. In addition to being the name of the chemical element, this indio functions as an adjective meaning ‘de color azul.’
© 2012 Steven Schwartzman