Gold, Frankincense & Myrrh

… and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.

Matthew 2:11

Gold Ingots


Gold: The most precious metal, characterized by its yellow colour

The word gold comes to English through the Germanic languages, and its origin can be traced all the way back to a Proto-Indo-European root ghel-, “to shine”. That root ghel- also gives us (by various routes, through various Indo-European languages) a whole host of words starting gl-, that denote shininess: gleam, glint, glimmer, glitter, glitz, glisten, glister, glass, glaze, glare, gloss, and glow.

Gold itself gives us various words, most of them pretty straightforward, like golden and goldsmith. Perhaps more obscure is the marigold, a yellow flower with medicinal properties, thought to be in some way connected to the Virgin Mary—literally, “Mary’s gold”.

What flower is that which bears the Virgin’s name,
The richest metal joined with the same?

John Gay: The Shepherd’s Week (1714)

Greek chrysos, “gold”, turns up in chrysanthemum, “gold flower”, originally applied to the bright yellow Corn Marigold, but now also to its relatives of other colours. It also gives names to three yellow-green gemstones, chrysoberyl, chrysolite and chrysoprase. The chrysalis in which a caterpillar turns into a butterfly occasionally has a golden sheen, depending on the species—the golden ones gave us the general name. Statues made of gold and ivory (more common than you might think in Classical times) are chryselephantine. The manufacture of gold (long sought by alchemists) is chrysopoesis, which would be popular with a chrysophilist, a “gold lover”. And someone who speaks eloquently is chrysostomic, “golden mouthed”.

St John Chrysostom
St John Chrysostom, with an aureole

St John Chrysostom was an Archbishop of Constantinople known for his oratory.  Like all saints, he is commonly depicted with a halo or aureole around his head—the halo being a ring, and the aureole a golden disc which takes its name from a diminutive form of the Latin aurum, “gold”. Things that have the properties of gold can be described as aurulent, aurous, aureate, or auric. The last one gave Ian Fleming the name for one of his James Bond villains, Auric Goldfinger.

A goldsmith is an aurifex, who will probably be able to do some aurigraphy, or gold engraving, for you. And a fine old medical name for jaundice is aurigo, for the golden colour of the skin.

Frankincense Resin


Frankincense: An aromatic gum resin, used for burning as incense

Frankincense is “frank incense”, employing an obsolete usage of the word frank, meaning “icense of high quality”. It is the resin of the shrub Boswellia sacra, which grows on both sides of the Gulf of Aden, where the Red Sea joins the Indian Ocean, and it produces fragrant smoke when burned.

Our word frank comes originally from the Franks, the Teutonic tribe who gave their name to France, and to the francisca, a kind of throwing axe which was their signature weapon. (It seems to have been a time for signature weapons: the Saxons had the seax, a short sword, and the Angles had the angon, a kind of javelin.) In Frankish Gaul, frank took on the meaning “free”, simply because the Franks were the ones who kept the slaves, rather than being slaves themselves. Then it acquired other pleasant associations, such as “generous,” “open,” “sincere” and “of high quality”. Only the sense of open sincerity has persisted in current English.

St Francis of Assisi (13th Century, Cimabue)
St Francis of Assisi, with an aureole

Franciscus is Latin for “Frenchman”. It evolved in Italian into Francesco, which was the nickname given to the Italian Giovanni di Pietro Bernardone by his father, who seems to have been an admirer of the French. Giovanni then grew up to be a saint, and was canonized using his childhood nickname and his place of birth: Francesco d’Assisi—St Francis of Assisi.

Incense is literally “that which is set on fire”, from the Latin incendere, “to set on fire”. It is burned in a censer. If you are incensed, you have been set on fire with anger. To incend means “to set alight”, which is the sort of thing done by an incendiary device.

Myrrh Resin


Myrrh: An aromatic gum resin used in perfume

Myrrh is a precious aromatic resin extracted from the very thorny tree Commiphora myrrha, native to Arabia and the Horn of Africa. It was traditionally used to anoint kings. It’s an odd-looking word, with the appearance of having just recently found its way into English, without having had time to develop a sensible spelling. But of course it’s been around in English for centuries, or it wouldn’t have appeared as one of the gifts of the Magi in the 1611 King James Version of the Bible, quoted at the head of this post. In earlier times it was more sensibly spelled mirre, which is how Chaucer wrote it. Originally, it’s an Arabic word—as you might expect for a product of the Arabian Peninsula.

It hasn’t spawned many other words in English, though there do seem to be an unreasonable number of myrrh-related adjectives: myrrhate, myrrhed, myrrhean, myrrhic, myrrhine and myrrhy have all seen use. (I’m going to mount a personal campaign to popularize myrrhy, which looks more like a suppressed cough than an actual word.)

St Demetrius of Thessaloniki (15th century icon)
St Demetrius of Thessaloniki, with an aureole

A myrrhophore is someone who carries myrrh—more generally, someone who has the task of anointing another. And a myroblite is a saint whose holy relics are said to miraculously exude myrrh, or some other fragrant substance. St Demetrius of Thessaloniki, known posthumously as the “Myrrh-Streamer”, is one; St Simon the Athonite, who founded the spectacular Simonopetra monastery at Mount Athos, is another.

Not sure you can work any of those into conversation? Then all I can offer is myropolist—a dealer in perfumes.

If you’re inclined culturally or personally to celebrate Christmas, then I wish you a good one.

One thought on “Gold, Frankincense & Myrrh”

  1. Further to the business of the word chrysalis being derived from the golden colour of some chrysalides, I’ve just found out from Patrick Barkham’s The Butterfly Isles that eighteenth-century lepidopterists styled themselves “Aurelians”—same derivation, different root language. There was even a Society of Aurelians, dedicated to the study of butterflies.

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