Gas, blas, and chaos

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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).


  1. Mark P said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 9:19 am

    Am I misreading this, or did the original term "gas" refer only to water vapor?

  2. jfruh said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 9:41 am

    Is "gas" as an abbreviation for (and element of) "gasoline" related? My Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology suggests so, but exactly how is kind of obscure to me from the entry.

  3. Cephi said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 10:39 am

    water vapour raised by cold rather than heat, okay i understand, but what does it mean to say that it is "masked with the ferment of composed bodies"?

  4. John Cowan said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 10:43 am

    Gasoline was originally gasolene, and the first syllable is indeed from gas; gasoline was presumably so called from its volatility, being the first fraction of petroleum that boils off when it is heated. (Kerosene, which keeps the -ene suffix, is next.)

  5. Dan Milton said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 10:46 am

    Could anyone shed light on "gas" as used in a letter of Francis Howard, Baron Howard of Effingham, undated but 1673-1683?
    "I never see any person in greater paine then when she griped, and so sick in her stomack that it is not for me to relate, she gases much, and blood hath come from her stooles."
    Certainly there is "gas" sense 1e "vapors generated in the stomach or intestines", but OED cites this from 1882.

  6. Nigel Greenwood said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 10:47 am

    On a point of detail, the Greek spelling of chaos should be χάος, with a final sigma. The word chaos was used by Ovid in a memorable line in Book I of the Metamorphoses:

    quem dixere chaos: rudis indigestaque moles

    ("… called Chaos: a rough, unordered mass …")

    [(myl) Thanks — I swear that I started with ς, and WordPress somehow turned that into a non-final sigma. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.]

  7. mollymooly said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 10:48 am

    According to the OED, gasoline or gasolene, from gas + -ol- (oil) + -ene or -ine (suffixes for hydrocarbon chemicals).

  8. Nicholas Waller said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 11:06 am

    "slang use of gas in Edith Nesbit's The Magic City, to mean something like "boastful talk"

    I wonder if that is related to the "hot air" we think of politicians talking, and another way of lifting balloons.

    Anyway, I was reminded of a comedy show on British TV in the 60s called "All Gas and Gaiters", about a bunch of clergymen, and thinking it might have some connection I googled the expression. From Quinion's Word Wide Words I see that the term "all gas and gaiters" came from Dickens originally, and meant "a most satisfactory state of affairs".

    He goes on to say that later on gaiters were associated with the clergy, because they wore them, and "and gas alluded to their supposedly meaningless eloquence. So all gas and gaiters has come to mean mere verbiage."

  9. Charles said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 11:50 am

    If you propose we deem plasma to be "blas", then Inductively-Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry could become Blas Spectrometry.

  10. Mark Liberman said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 1:04 pm

    Here's a bit more on the gas examples from The Magic City. As you'll see, they don't exactly refer to boastful or empty speech, but rather to the sincere expression of praise.

    Background: Philip's mother Helen has married Lucy's father. Philip and Lucy began their relationship badly, but are now in the middle of a dream-like magical adventure that has brought them together. After giving away an imaginary island that he created with his mother, Philip has been sitting alone to come to terms with his loss.

    When at last he sniffed with an air of finality and raised his head, the first thing he saw was Lucy, sitting quite still with her back to him.

    'Hullo!' he said rather crossly. 'What are you doing here?'

    'Saying the multiplication table,' said Lucy promptly and turned her head, 'so as not even to think about you. And I haven't even once turned around. I knew you wanted to be alone. But I wanted to be here when you'd done being along. See? I've got something to say to you.'

    'Fire ahead,", said Philip, still grumpy.

    'I think you're perfectly splendid,' said Lucy very seriously, 'and I want it to be real pax forever. And I'll help you in the rest of the adventures. And if you're cross, I'll try not to mind. Napoleon was cross sometimes, I believe,' she added pensively, 'and Julius Caesar.'

    'Oh, that's all right,' said Philip very awkwardly.

    'Then we're going to be real chums?'

    'Oh yes, if you like. Only — I don't mind this once, and it was decent of you to come and sit there with your back to me — only I hate gas.'

    'Yes,' said Lucy obediently, 'I know. Only sometimes you feel you must gas a little or burst of admiration. And I've got your proper clothes in a bundle. I've been carrying them about ever since the islanders' castle was washed away. Here they are.'

    She produced the bundle. And this time Philip was really touched.

    'Now I do call that something like,' he said. 'The seaweed dress is all right here, but you never know what you may have to go through when you're doing adventures. THere might be thorns or snakes or anything. I'm jolly glad to get my boots back too. I say, come on. Let's go to Helen's palace and get a banquet ready. I know there'll have to be a banquet. There always is, here. I know a first-rate bun-tree quite near here.'

    'The cooca-nut-ice plants looked beautiful as I came along,' said Lucy. 'What a lovely island it is. And you made it!'

    'No gas,' said Philip warningly. 'Helen and I made it.'

    'She's the dearest darling,' said Lucy.

    'Oh, well,' said Philip with resignation, 'if you must gas, gas about her.'

    The author, Edith Nesbit, was an interesting person. If you happen not to know her books, you should check them out. I somehow managed to miss The Magic City as a child, and again as a parent, but I was happy to catch up with it last week.

  11. Bryn LaFollette said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 1:34 pm

    Does anyone know how or if the family name of the painter Edgar Degas (which appears on his mausoleum as 'de Gas') relates to "gas" in this case?

    Also, on the subject of Blas, the OED entry quoted doesn't give any explanation for how he came to this particular word form. Although, I really like that the explanation seems to be essentially saying it means 'star farts'. It shares a lot of its phonological shape with both 'flatus' (as mentioned in the OED entry) and 'plasma'. It seems so tantalizing similar in form to 'plasma' too, although it seems like from his explanation it could still be a very apt alternate name for solar wind, and perhaps by extension the Aurora Borealis (or at least its cause). Stellar influence on our seasons and weather indeed!

  12. Nicholas Waller said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 4:10 pm

    "Gassing" is also an English term for chatting, nattering, gossiping, shooting the breeze and so on… though when you try and look for it on Google you wonder why, as most hits come up with references to killing humans and animals. Or refuelling.

    But here is one reference to it from 2007: "It was a great night out and we spent the whole time gassing. Sam says it had been about 3 years since we last saw each other but I don't believe it because it only felt like 5 minutes!"

  13. Tim said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 4:53 pm

    "Does anyone know how or if the family name of the painter Edgar Degas (which appears on his mausoleum as 'de Gas') relates to 'gas' in this case?"

    To me, it seems unlikely that it does. According to the Wikipedia, there's at least one place name of "Gas" in France. That seems like a more probable origin to me. (No idea where the place name comes from, though. Nor even if it is old enough to be the origin of "de Gas".)

  14. Ray Girvan said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 5:00 pm

    Maybe there are false cognates in here, but "blas" also makes me think of Blasen: German for "bladder", which shares roots with "blather" and "blether" (i.e. to talk) and can be inflated to make a gasbag (talking again).

    "Blast" (OED 1. A blowing or strong gust of wind. (2a A puff or blowing of air through the mouth or nostrils; a breath. Obs. or arch.) looks as if it might share roots with Blasen via OTeut. *bl{aecirc}san, (Goth. -blêsan, ON. blása, WGer. blâsan) to blow.

    "Blas" is a word with such deep roots that it's a pity it didn't catch on.

  15. Nathan Myers said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 5:07 pm

    Astronomers almost compulsively call plasma "hot gas", when they hope not to evoke any hint that it might exhibit such plasma-dynamic behaviors as organized current flow, or any of myriad instabilities plasma systems are heir to. The astrophysical doctrine is that, yes, it's all plasma out there, but it doesn't do anything. Many plasma physicists take exception to this attitude.

    For our purposes, the phenomenon of interest is use of the expression "hot gas" as an invocation to ward off any requirement to engage in unpleasantly intractable mathematics.

  16. Ray Girvan said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 7:38 pm

    Tim > Degas … "Gas" in France. That seems like a more probable origin to me

    Agreed. Degas' paternal grandfather, Rene-Hilaire De Gas, was a baker from Orléans. The commune Gas, Eure-et-Loir department, is very close to Orléans.

  17. Bryn LaFollette said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 9:27 pm

    Degas' paternal grandfather, Rene-Hilaire De Gas, was a baker from Orléans. The commune Gas, Eure-et-Loir department, is very close to Orléans.

    Well, that leads to the question of where the commune Gas gets its name. There is surprisingly little information on either the French or English Wikipedia pages, nor on any of the easily found pages on les communes de France. I don't even see a founding date anyplace, or any hint that it would have any relation to J. B. Van Helmont (which seems unlikely).

  18. Ray Girvan said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 11:07 pm

    Well, that leads to the question of where the commune Gas gets its name.

    I just found the official Gas website "Les Seigneurs de Gas" go way back; the earliest listed is Gui de Gas (confirmed elsewhere) c.1220.

  19. Karhys said,

    December 18, 2008 @ 2:39 am

    I thought I would note that 'gasbagging' (gas-bagging) is also a common term used in Australia for chatting, gossiping, talking about nothing of consequence. I always presumed the 'gas bag' came from a 'hot air' reference, but I don't know the history.

    Here is a news article from an Australian website using it in the title of the article: 'Motorists still gas-bagging behind the wheel, study shows'.

  20. Nigel Greenwood said,

    December 18, 2008 @ 7:45 am

    @ John Cowan. At the airfield where I fly we use a Ford pickup truck which has been converted to run on gas … (Hint: this is in the UK.)

  21. Martin Ewing said,

    December 19, 2008 @ 1:13 am

    For what it's worth, BLAS, to computer folk, is a common acronym standing for Basic Linear Algebra Subprograms. Pronounced "blas". C.f. Checking Google, I find that "blas" means something or other about music to the Irish.

  22. Merri said,

    December 19, 2008 @ 9:51 am

    Isn't this 'blas' simply from the German (and Dutch) root meaniong 'to blow' ?

    [(myl) That's what the OED says:

    [In ME. use either a phonetic variant or parallel form of BLAST, f. OE. *blǽsan, ON. blása, etc. to blow. In sense 2 it was invented by Van Helmont, probably with a reference to the same root; cf. his other term GAS.]

    (By the way, the OE form should have the acute accent over the 'æ', but in the OS/browser/font combination that I'm seeing at the moment — Ubuntu 8.04/Firefox 3.0.5/<default> — it's displayed over the 's':

    See the comments section here for various explanations of why this is allegedly all for the best in the best of all possible worlds. And yes, I know about U+01FD LATIN SMALL LETTER AE WITH ACUTE ǽ, but I'm making a point here.) ]

  23. Merri said,

    December 19, 2008 @ 10:03 am

    BTW, I think the g wasn't palatalized in XVII century Dutch.

    Can somebody confirm ?

  24. dan said,

    December 20, 2008 @ 1:45 pm

    "Chatting gas" or "gassing" has picked up again fairly recently in Black British English and MEYD from users who often aren't aware of its previous usage in slang. It seems to have connotations of talking rubbish, boasting, etc.

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