Weekly Wednesday Word:X-ray

Welcome to ‘Weekly Wednesday Word’!Ever wonder where certain words come from? Well I do, quite often (probably too often). As a writer I find a deeper knowledge of linguistics and etymology to be not only useful but downright enriching.

This weeks word is:X-ray

X-rays, believe it or not, are one of those accidental discoveries of mankind (they were looking for something entirely different at the time). The history of its discovery and development is not only fascinating and funny, but at times terribly sad. Once Röntgen discovered the mysterious rays, people took it upon themselves to use it for all manner of things, such as live full body X-rays (can you imagine the radiation!). They weren’t aware of radiation poisoning back then, until the painful reality set in. Now we use X-rays judiciously and with lots of lead to shield our important bits. ; )

According to the the online etymology dictionary  , X-ray is actually a translation from the German of the word combo ‘X-strahlen (Strahlen meaning ‘ray’ or ‘beam’). As you may have guessed, the ‘X’ is a mathematical variable, and refers to the unknown nature.

Since the discovery of the X-ray only dates to 1896, there’s nothing about it in any of my older etymological books (yes, they are that old, and I love them for that).

Fun facts:

Like many other scientific discoveries, X-rays where trotted out like a circus side show (see laughing gas). People used to line up and pay, simply to have their fist X-rayed whilst holding a coin tightly clutched in it.

There was also the matter of the fluoroscopic opera glasses, which made the Victorian moralist cringe, ‘Oh no, they musn’t gaze at the nude bones of ladies, those perverts!’

Perhaps on the not so fun side of facts, they were also used at one point to routinely check things like how wide pregnant women’s hips were (they were afraid if the hips were too narrow the baby would be stuck). I think this just reminds us once again, that something we considered as a test or treatment today, might turn out to be a health disaster fifty years (or less) from now.

There’s also a nice and very long wikipedia page here.

I regret to say that I once read a wonderful book about this very subject, but can no longer remember the title, suffice to say if you find yourself, very oddly enough, lurking around your local library, I’d take the time to look for it!

Question: Have you read any good books on the history of X-rays?



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