Bill Long 10/31/04
The word we use today to mean "unshakeable, inflexible" has a dramatically long history which intersects with gemstones along the way, even if it there is an interesting detour to magnets, too. Let's try to sort it out by beginning with a distinction.
Though adamite is a mineral, a phosphate of the arsenate group, with the chemical name of zinc arsenate hydroxide, and is said to possess an adamantine luster (a very lustrous shine), the unwary might think that somehow the name of the mineral bequeathed its luster to a category of luster. But that would be a mistake. Adamite was named after its discoverer, the Frenchman Gilbert Adam (1795-1881). It has a light green fluorescence under short and long UV light and is related to ("isomorphous with") olivenite and cuproadamite, though the latter term is not yet universally accepted. Its crystal structure is orthorhombic, which means that the structure is a four-sided prism in which the three axes, although at right angles to each other, are of different lengths. Thus, we might say that adamite only has an adamantine luster by chance.
But a further distinction should be made. The word adamite first entered the English language in the 17th century as a theological concept, meaning a descendant of the first man, Adam. An adamite, therefore, is a human. In a more specialized sense, an adamite is a person that imitates Adam in his (purported) primeval nakedness. The theological underpinning of this conduct was that people in their redeemed state had retained the primitive innocence of Adam. Thus, the Guardian in 1756 could talk about a "sect of men among us, who called themselves Adamites, and appeared in publick without clothes." I don't think there are any active Adamites today, especially in North Dakota in January.
Returning to Adamant/Adamantine
Let's return to the colorful history of adamant. The Greek word "adamas" first appeared in Homer as an epithet, meaning "invincible," and is from the Greek word "damao," meaning "I tame" and the "alpha privativum," which negates the meaning of the verb. Thus "untamable." Hesiod used it as the name of a very hard metal such as would go into armor. The great Greek botanist Theophrastus, star pupil of Aristotle, applied the word to the hardest crystalline gem then known, the emery stone of Naxos.
Scholars today think that this was an amorphous form of corundum, which is only one hardness less than diamond on the Mohs scale, but is, nevertheless, 40x less hard than diamond. Then, when diamonds became known to the West, the word adamant was applied by the natural historians Pliny and Pausanias to diamond. Because diamond was the hardest substance known to man, adamant became identified with something tough, inflexible or unyielding.
Now the Fun Begins
According to the OED, early medieval Latin writers thought that the word was derived from the Latin adamare, which means "to have an attraction for" or "take a liking to," and so began to associate the word with magnetism. The lapidem adamantem became associated with the loadstone or magnet, and with this confusion the word passed into more modern English. Thus, by the time you get to around 1500, the word adamant can refer specifically to a diamond or, more generally to an inflexible or unyielding characteristic or material and also to a magnetic attraction.
For example, the first may be illustrated by Miles Coverdale's translation of Ezekiel 3:9. "They made their hertes as an Adamant stone." And Milton, in describing Satan's address to his minions in Book II of Paradise Lost, has this creature speak of their huge prison that "immures us round/ Ninefold, and gates of burning Adamant/ Barr'd over us prohibit all egress." The figurative meaning is captured in a 1943 quotation: "both Joanna and I tried to make her chaange her mind, but she was quite adamant." But then the interesting "magnet" meaning appears in a Puritan theological exhortation: "The grace of God's spirit, like the true loadstone or adamant, draws up the iron heart of man to it." And even Shakespeare seemed to combine/confuse the two meanings when he says, in Midsummer's Night Dream, "You draw me, you hard-hearted adamant,/ But yet you draw not iron, for my heart/ Is true as steele."
By the late 17th century the confusion with loadstone sees to have disappeared, and then the word is only used either figuratively or as a synonym of diamond.
A Concluding Word on Adamantine
This is not the place to give even a quickie on the notion of luster. Suffice it to say that scholars use anywhere from 10 and 14 terms to describe the various kinds of surface reflectance ("glossiness" or "brightness") of a mineral. These terms are all a bit vague, and no number-based scale is attached to them, but all are agreed that adamantine, which means "immovable or impregnable" when referring to a person, means "brilliant" or "extremely lustrous" when attached to a stone. The highest luster of any nonmetallic mineral is shown by diamond, and for such an especially high luster the term adamantine applies. Hence, the term, which has returned from its migration to the magnetic field, now wanders a bit to mean the brilliant and shining face of a diamond crystal.
But we have gone far enough for one day. We might well pray to the gods to soften our adamantine hearts through sleep, yet to grant to us a lustrous and adamantine countenance to meet the new day.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long