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Glass is an example of a word that has shattered into lots of meanings we currently recognize but also with many earlier and forgotten etymological branches.
In English the word shows up well over 1100 years ago in the works attributed to King Alfred the Great.
Then, as now, the word meant the substance glass.
Since people make lots of useful things out of glass these too began adopt the word as their name:
- drinking vessels,
- magnifying glasses, and
have all at some time in the last 600 years or so been called a glass.
Today, apart from the material itself, spectacles and drinking vessels are the things that come to mind when someone refers to their glasses without which they can’t find their glass.
The word glass arrived with the oldest of Old English, because the manufacture of glass is one of the oldest of technologies.
According to John Ayto’s book Word Origins, glass manufacture historically produced colored glass, not clear glass, and so ghel, the Indo-European ancestor of glass, was actually a color word that also gave Greek a word meaning “green” and English the word yellow.
The American Heritage Dictionary assigns this same Indo-European root ghel the meaning “to shine,” and so associates the root with the word gold.
Glass is sometimes said to be a super-cooled fluid as opposed to a solid.
The reason people say this is that unlike many minerals glass isn’t formed into crystals but made up of its constituent molecules all jumbled together at random as they would be in a liquid.
This is what makes glass so useful because unlike H2O which turns from ice to water all in a rush, glass just becomes oozier and oozier as it warms up and thus can be formed into all the useful objects that people want to refer to as a glass.
This too is why the windows in ancient buildings are made up of panes that are thin at the top and thicker at the bottom. Over the centuries they too have oozed; just very, very slowly.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.