Vitriol

n.  cruel and bitter criticism. (Oxford American Dictionary)

The background for today’s word comes from a recent blog post by John Kuhner.  Mr Kuhner was recently fined $50 by the Transit Police for resting his feet up against a seat on the train early in the morning.  His post was picked up in an article in the Gothamist.  Go to both sites, but in particular, read the comments on the Gothamist.  Many, starting with the first, are the embodiment of the word vitriol, which I can only best define as a depth of hatred but not necessarily a depth of thought.  The word was the first that came to mind to both John and me when reading them.  BTW, A less biting discussion occurs at the subway blog Second Avenue Sagas.

The interesting thing about the word Vitriol is its origins.  It comes from Latin’s vitrum, which means glass.  How does a word that means glass come to mean something biting or acidic?

This history is shockingly scientific and has to do with sulfates.  I claim to have nothing more that a Wikipedish knowledge of sulfates; a sulfate is  a”salt of sulfuric acid.”  Some salts were known from long ago as vitriol salts because they had a glassy appearance.  This was the key jump in the meaning of the word.

From there, vitriol meant sulfuric acid, ultimately losing its glassy meaning.  Now, no one uses the literal meaning of vitriol, the acid, but only the more figurative phrase, best exemplified by New Yorkers determined to keep other people’s feet off of their seats.

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