General English


  • noun a grey semimetallic chemical element that forms poisonous compounds such as arsenic trioxide, which was formerly used in some medicines


Origin & History of “arsenic”

The term arsenic was originally applied to the lemon-yellow mineral arsenic trisulphide, and its history reveals the reason: for its appears to be based ultimately on Persian zar ‘gold’ (related forms include Sanskrit hari ‘yellowish’, Greek khlōros ‘greenish-yellow’, and English yellow itself). The derivative zarnīk was borrowed into Arabic as zernīkh, which, as usual with Arabic words, was perceived by foreign listeners as constituting an indivisible unit with its definite article al ‘the’ – hence azzernīkh, literally ‘the arsenic trisulphide’. this was borrowed into Greek, where the substance’s supposed beneficial effects on virility led, through association with Greek árrēn ‘male, virile’, to the new forms arrenikón and arsenikón, source of Latin arsenicum and, through Old French, of English arsenic. The original English application was still to arsenic trisulphide (orpiment was its other current name), and it is not until the early 17th century that we find the term used for white arsenic or arsenic trioxide. The element arsenic itself was isolated and so named at the start of the 19th century.