Words about carbon

Carbon is a non-metallic element that makes up less than one per cent of the earth’s crust and, for a long period, 100 per cent of the Australian political debate.

Much of the world’s carbon is contained in coal that was created during the Carboniferous Period from 360 to 300 million years ago. We are forced to burn more and more coal to keep up with the demand for electricity that is needed to run our air conditioners in the summer to escape the effects of global warming. The Australian Government is now (2011) asking us to pay a tax on carbon pollution because of global warming.

Although carbon has been known to man since prehistory, the word was coined in the 1780s by the French scientist, Antoine Lavoisier as charbone. It was based on the Latin carbo for glowing coal or charcoal, from the Proto-Indo-European base-word ker for heat, fire, or to burn, which is also seen in our word cremate.

Carbonifeorous is a scientific Latin construction meaning coal producing from carbo for coal and ferous for producing, containing, or bearing.

Coal, which is technically mineralised fossil carbon, comes from old English col and is similar in all the Germanic languages: Dutch kool; German, Kohle; and old Norse  kol.

Coal can be classified in quality from the poorest quality brown coal, lignite, to high quality black coal, anthracite.

Lignite still contains the remnants of lignin, the plant material from which coal is formed, and is from the Latin lignum for wood. One form of lignite is jet, which is compact and has a deep black colour from which we get the expression jet black. Jet was carved and polished to make jewellery. Jet gets its name rather classically from Norman French jaiet, via Latin gagates, from the original Greek expression, gagates lithos, meaning stone of Gages, a town in Lycia where it was sometimes washed ashore.

Anthracite gets its name from the Greek word anthrax for charcoal or coal. The bacterial disease anthrax, gets its name from the coal-black-centred boils formed from skin infections. A boil with a red centre was known as a carbuncle, from Latin for little coal!

Carbon might well be disputed as the source of global warming but it is, indisputably, the hottest political word at the moment.