This morning's serendipity is the history of gas, which turns out to come from chaos, and to have been coined almost 400 years ago by J. B. Van Helmont in association with another word, blas, that never caught on.
I was curious about a slang use of gas in Edith Nesbit's The Magic City, to mean something like "boastful talk". So I looked it up in the OED, where I was waylaid by the etymology:
[A word invented by the Dutch chemist, J. B. Van Helmont (1577-1644), but avowedly based upon the Gr. χάος (‘halitum illum Gas vocavi, non longe a Chao veterum secretum.’ Ortus Medicinæ, ed. 1652, p. 59a); the Dutch pronunciation of g as a spirant accounts for its being employed to represent Gr. χ; perh. suggested by Paracelsus's use of chaos for the proper element of spirits such as gnomes: see GNOME2.
Van Helmont's statement having been overlooked, it has been very commonly supposed that he modelled his word on Du. geest spirit, an idea found at least as early as 1775 (Priestley On Air Introd. 3). Van H. also invented the term BLAS, which has not survived, while gas has been adopted (usually in the same form) in most European languages; the spelling in F. and Pg. is gaz, which was also employed by English writers for a time.]
Since OED senses are given in historical order, the first sense of gas is
1. An occult principle supposed by Van Helmont to be contained in all bodies, and regarded by him as an ultra-rarefied condition of water (see quot. 1662). Obs.
But the earliest citation in English is not to Chandler's translation of Van Helmont, but rather to an even more curious book:
1658 R. FRANCK North. Mem. (1694) 202 Insomuch, that neither Gass nor Blass, nor any nauseating suffocating Fumes, nor hardly Death it self can snatch them from Scotland.
1662 J. CHANDLER Van Helmont's Oriat. 69 Because the water which is brought into a vapour by cold, is of another condition, than a vapour raised by heat: therefore..for want of a name, I have called that vapour, Gas, being not far severed from the Chaos of the Auntients..Gas is a far more subtile or fine thing than a vapour, mist, or distilled Oylinesses, although as yet, it be many times thicker than Air. But Gas it self, materially taken, is water as yet masked with the Ferment of composed Bodies.
The 1658 reference is to Richard Franck's Northern Memoirs, Calculated for the Meridian of Scotland; To Which is Added, The Contemplative and Practical Angler. Writ in the Year 1658. And the context of the cited passage is the following dialogue between Arnoldus and Theophilus:
Arn. Does hunger make any distinction in dainties? if not, then why should Scotish kale blot out the character of English colliflowers?
Theoph. I shan't dispute the point, but the very thoughts of England sweetens my apprehensions, that possibly e're long I may taste of a southern sallad: However, this I'll say in the honour of Scotland, that cold and hunger are inseparable companions, but their linens are fresh; and were not their beds so short, they would serve well enough for weary travellers.
Arn. Then I fancy they will serve well enough for us, whilst we trace the fragrant levels of Fife. For now we relinquish the beautiful ports of Dundee, to transport in boats that are steer'd with a compass of straw, by reason of the embodied mists, to which Dundee is as incident as any part, because standing in a bottom that's besieged with mucky miry earth; from whence there insurrect such pernicious vapours, as nauseate the air ; whereby it becomes almost infectious.
Theoph. Why so?
Arn. Because it debilitates both the native and inhabitant, and would certainly incapacitate them of health and long life, did not custom and a country-habit plead a prescription, both as to physick and diet : Insomuch, that neither gass nor blass, nor any nauseating suffocating fumes, nor hardly death it self can snatch them from Scotland ; where some natives have lived to a prodigious age.
For blas, the OED gives this gloss and citation:
2. Van Helmont's term for a supposed ‘flatus’ or influence of the stars, producing changes of weather.
1662 J. CHANDLER Van Helmont's Oriat. 78 The Stars..cause the changes, seasons, and successive courses or interchanges. To which end, they have need of a twofold motion..I signifie both these by the new name of Blas.
It seems to me that the English language is poorer for the lack of expressions involving "gas and blas"; it's too bad that 18th-century chemists couldn't find any real substance to which the reference of blas could be transferred, as the reference of gas was. Too bad that plasma wasn't discovered until 1879 (and wasn't named until 1928).