Way back in the day, before people knew anything about chemical composition, chromophores, and spectroscopy, gemstones got their names by fairly straightforward descriptions. A green gem was a green gem back then; the Greek word smaragdos, from which the English word “emerald” is derived, literally translates as “green gemstone.”
One of the best examples of misidentification is peridot. Over the millennia, peridot has been called topazius, chrysolite, and smaragdos, by Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. Just in the last few hundred years, peridot has gone by its mineralogical name “olivine.” The result: peridot didn’t get its own renown for centuries. This confusion is at least partially attributed to the probability that peridot has been known and purposefully mined for well-nigh 4,000 years. Since it trends from greenish to yellowish to brownish, the naming of gemstones based on color scheme really took it for a ride as one culture overtook another and phonetics became corrupted through the ages.
The Romans, at least, seemed to recognize some distinctions between green gems like emerald and peridot. Ancient Romans called peridot the “Evening Emerald” because it did not lose any of its green in the transition from daylight to firelight, as some emeralds may.
Peridot’s current name is attributed to two potential sources. First, there is a long tradition associating peridot with wealth, good fortune, breaking curses, and overall prosperity. The Greek word peridona means “to make rich,” and so that connotation could have likely carried over into an English translation. Second is the Old French word peritot, meaning “gold,” which holds its water in the Greek term chrysolite, which means “gold stone.” One look at a medium-grade peridot cut en cabochon as the ancients would have seen it, and it’s easy to see why peridot was probably being referenced.
Where peridot was often mistaken for other gems before finally coming into its own, opal has been known as its own distinct gemstone for thousands of years. But the modern word “opal” is somewhat of an etymological mystery. Popular opinion usually falls back on Latin, which isn’t wrong. But it is what the Latin term opalus falls back on that creates division.
It is sometimes claimed that opalus is the Latinzed version of opallios, a Greek word meaning “to see a change of color.” But the Greeks recognized opal and referred to it as paederos, which means “Cupid’s gem.” Historians and linguists note that opallios didn’t even appear in the Greek language until after the Romans had already taken over in 180 BC, which was after the Romans were already enthralled by opals. So opallios is possibly a Greek corruption of the Latin opalus, which would effectively put such an etymological proposition to rest.
Romans got their opals from traders in the Middle East, probably around Byzantium, who told the Romans they got their goods from India, and so the Sanskrit term úpala, which simply means “precious stone,” came to the fore. However, the Indians of that age knew nothing of opals; opals are not even mentioned in Ayurveda, the Ancient Hindu handbook of “life-knowledge.” As far as historians can tell, natives of India didn’t even know what opals were until the rise of the Mughal Empire in the 1500s AD. That means those unscrupulous traders lied to their Roman buyers. Just like today, dishonest gem dealers hunting for a quick buck probably claimed the opals were from India to gouge prices.
So where did the opals come from, and why is that pertinent to how opal got its name? And why would the gem traders fib about the source of their goods?
Romans held the belief that gemstones “ripened” in hotter climates, becoming harder and more beautiful. Therefore gemstones from the Orient, and India specifically, were of higher esteem. The opals these traders sold to the Romans most likely came from the Carpathian Mountains in an area then known in the Magyar (Ancient Hungarian-Slovakian) language as Opalbanya, which more or less translates to English as “opal mine.”
If the Romans knew the opals they were buying were from a cold climate, they wouldn’t have paid nearly as much for them. So the Romans definitely picked up the term “opal” from the traders at Byzantium, because the traders picked it up from the Carpathian miners who sold them what the miners called opals.
The rest is speculation. Is it happenstance that the Sanskrit term and the Magyar term are so close phonetically? Possibly. Or was one of the wily traders so quick on his feet that he just thought of an appropriate word in Sanskrit to close the deal? Also a possibility. Does the actuality have any effect on opals today? Not really. But it sure is a fun fact, and we thought you’d like to know.