In a family Jeopardy game this evening to celebrate my son’s birthday, the Final Jeopardy category was “Science Language.” Here’s the Final Jeopardy answer:
Coined by chemist Van Helmont, the word ‘gas’ comes from this Greek word meaning ‘unformed mass.’
All together now! Everyone sing the Jeopardy tune while we all think it over, and don’t forget to make a wager! “Doo, doo, doo, doo doo, doo, doo, dooo . . . “
If you guessed chaos, you’re wrong, because you didn’t put your response in the form of a question! The correct response is, “What is chaos?” If you responded correctly, you may have won an imaginary $16,800, as I did!
The hyper-correct response is actually, “What is khaos?” That’s the Greek spelling. The Greek alphabet had no C, a redundant letter in that the letters K and S take care of its sounds. It shares a history with G, gamma, the third letter of the Greek alphabet. (You can read about this history in an interesting new book called A Grandmother’s Alphabet Book.)
Khaos did not mean only “unformed mass.” The word also named a deity, the first to emerge from the primordial ooze after creation. She formed the misty atmosphere surrounding the earth as it emerged, and thereby gave birth to the birds.
Jan Baptista van Helmont, a 16th century Flemish chemist, used the word to give gases their name. In the manner of the time, he’s identified not only as a scientist, but also as a physician, mystic, and philosopher. Gases are nebulous and amorphous, seemingly insubstantial. It took a mystic and philosopher to identify and name them.