Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Magnet – Podictionary Word of the Day

iTunes users can subscribe to this podcast

The Oxford English Dictionary refers to two guys—Pliny and Nicander—in its etymology for the word magnet.

Pliny was a Roman who lived in the first century and wrote something called the Natural History. It’s very useful in figuring out how people back then thought of the world around them.

With respect to magnets Pliny was in turn quoting Nicander, a Greek who had lived 200 or 300 years earlier.

In the two thousand years since Pliny most of Nicander’s writings have been lost but what he evidently said about magnets relates to the etymology of the word.

One day a shepherd was out tending his flock when he found that the iron tip on his shepherd’s staff was sticking to some rocks and so were the nails in his shoes.

The shepherd’s name was Magnes and so that’s how magnets got their name.

One of the documents that Nicander wrote that has survived is a kind of study on poisonous snakes.  In there he tells of one species of snake that has a head at both ends.  He also lets us know that if you catch two snakes mating and then grind up their flesh, that’s a perfect antidote for poisonous snake bite.

Since both of these purported facts are complete balderdash it should come as no surprise that his etymology of magnet is hokum as well.

The Oxford English Dictionary by including this little story may be displaying a little more openness in its latest entries; this one is dated June 2008.

Instead of leaving an etymology blank if they don’t believe any of the theories associated with a word they seem to be at least entertaining possibilities.

So, having dispensed with Nicander’s imaginative tale, here’s the more likely chain of events, still not completely certain but strong enough to rate inclusion in most dictionaries.

There was a place in ancient Greece called Magnesia and this place was a source of several useful mineral products back in ancient times.

One of these was loadstone which is basically a chunk of naturally occurring iron which has somehow in the course of the earth’s long history obtained a magnetic orientation.

Manufactured magnets are basically the same thing except that we use induced magnetic fields to line up the iron particles.

So the Greeks called these curious stones magnes lithos which means “stone from Magnesia.”

Eventually through Latin and French manges lithos got worn down to magnet.

Because these rocks are kind of magical, during the time of alchemy their name was invoked as an ingredient in any number of hopeful mixtures.  But since not all alchemists really understood what these particular rocks were, other kinds of minerals got tagged with the name as well.

Iron is not manganese or magnesium but these metals and magnet all share a similar etymology.

Ambrose Bierce reveals how far science had come by 100 years ago with the following entries in his Devil’s Dictionary.

Magnet: Something acted upon by magnetism

Magnetism: Something acting upon a magnet

The two definitions immediately foregoing are condensed from the works of one thousand eminent scientists, who have illuminated the subject with a great white light, to the inexpressible advancement of human knowledge.


Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.

Recent Comments

  1. [...] equator Wednesday’s word origin was for pundit Thursday’s etymology, posted at OUPblog was for magnet and Friday’s word root was for the word [...]

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *