Saturday, December 31, 2005



Andrew Schneider and David McCumber, An Air That Kills: How the Asbestos Poisoning of Libby, Montana, Uncovered a National Scandal (New York: Berkley Books, 2004), pp. 78-79:
Greek and Roman stonecutters chided their slaves to avoid digging in quarries where deposits of peculiar silken fibers weakened the integrity of the stone. But slaves found that heavy pieces of rock could be easily shoved along a wall or stone walkway atop a path of slippery, wetted asbestos fibers.

To their puzzlement, they also found that when they tossed bundles of the thin fibers into the fire pits used for heating and cooking, the fibers were still there the next morning, unscathed among the cool ashes of the pit. They called the material asbestos, which some linguists say comes from a Greek word meaning "inextinguishable" or "unquenchable."

Others insist the name comes from a Latin word meaning "unsoiled." Romans wove the asbestos fiber into a cloth-like material that was sewn into table coverings and napkins. Supposedly, according to some researchers, these were cleaned by throwing them into a fire, where the asbestos cloth came out not only unscathed but whiter than when it went in -- thus the name.
The etymological information provided by Schneider and McCumber is confusing and erroneous. There is no disagreement concerning the etymology of asbestos. No linguist would dispute that the ultimate origin of the English word asbestos is from the Greek ἄσβεστος, itself derived from alpha privative plus σβέννυμι (sbénnymi), a verb meaning quench, extinguish. The English word is a straight transliteration from the Greek.

The confusion arises from the fact there is another word in Greek referring to a similar fire-resistant material, ἀμίαντος (amíantos), meaning undefiled, unsullied, itself from alpha privative plus μιαίνω (miaínō), a verb meaning stain, defile.

Both words appear as loan words in Latin. Pliny the Elder's description of fabric made with asbestos is interesting (Natural History 19.4.19-20, tr. John Bostock and H.T. Riley):
There has been invented also a kind of linen which is incombustible by flame. It is generally known as "live" linen, and I have seen, before now, napkins that were made of it thrown into a blazing fire, in the room where the guests were at table, and after the stains were burnt out, come forth from the flames whiter and cleaner than they could possibly have been rendered by the aid of water. It is from this material that the corpse-cloths of monarchs are made, to ensure the separation of the ashes of the body from those of the pile. This substance grows in the deserts of India, scorched by the burning rays of the sun: here, where no rain is ever known to fall, and amid multitudes of deadly serpents, it becomes habituated to resist the action of fire. Rarely to be found, it presents considerable difficulties in weaving it into a tissue, in consequence of its shortness; its colour is naturally red, and it only becomes white through the agency of fire. By those who find it, it is sold at prices equal to those given for the finest pearls; by the Greeks it is called "asbestinon," a name which indicates its peculiar properties. Anaxilaus makes a statement to the effect that if a tree is surrounded with linen made of this substance, the noise of the blows given by the axe will be deadened thereby, and that the tree may be cut down without their being heard. For these qualities it is that this linen occupies the very highest rank among all the kinds that are known.
The observation of Anaxilaus is accurate. Until the dangers of asbestos became widely known, it was used not only for fire-proofing but for sound-proofing. For example, Pfizer manufactured a Kilnoise Acoustical Plaster that contained asbestos. Killed more than just noise, apparently.

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