Asbestos has gone by many names throughout its long and sordid jaunt through history. The word asbestos itself is adopted via the Old French “abestos”, which in turn got the word from Latin via Greek. It stems from the ancient Greek word “ἄσβεστος” meaning “unquenchable” or “inextinguishable” – however, this word only means that when used as an adjective. When used as a noun it means lime, quicklime, or unslaked lime. It is said by the Oxford English Dictionary to have been wrongly used by Pliny for asbestos, who popularized the misnomer.
The ancient Romans used a Latin word, amiantus, meaning unsoiled, or unpolluted, and this was adopted into the English language as Amiant in the early 15th century, but this usage fell out of popularity and was superseded by the word asbestos around the 1600-1700’s.
Asbestos has also been referred to in several idioms through history. Roman naturalist author, Pliny the Elder (AD24-79) defined it as “live linen” for its fibrous nature and spinnability. Pausanias, a geographer from the second century AD spoke of an ever burning lamp with a wick of “Carpasian flax” in his book, “Description of Greece” referring to the locality of its origin, having come from the island of Cyprus.
Many centuries later, Benjamin Franklin coined the term “salamander cotton” as a throwback to the old belief that asbestos came from the “wool” of a salamander. Later, a mattress company that operated in the early 20th century even gave these creatures a nod and named their company “Salamandra” when they came out with the first mass produced thermo-resistant mattress using asbestos fibers in their weave.
Those of you who know that a salamander is an amphibian, and therefore does not have wool; the belief was derived from the Ancient Roman legend perpetuated by Pliny the Elder of the fire salamander, a mystical beast that was born in fire and was “so chilly” that it could extinguish fires in the same way as ice does. It could also vomit a milky saliva that could make a person lose their hair and break out in a rash. The legend grew to say these fire salamanders would climb up fruit trees and poison all the fruit in the trees, or swim in wells and rivers to purposely poison and kill any who might partake the fruit or water. Interesting, as asbestos itself is so deadly.
A few more names given to asbestos over the centuries were “bergflachs” meaning mountain linen, earth-flax, scrim, mountain-flax, & salamander floss.