Who'd have thought that sulfuric acid would be in the news today? Look at this headline from the Los Angeles Times's website: VITRIOL FOCUS OF LAWMAKERS AFTER ARIZONA SHOOTING OF DEMOCRATIC REP. GABRIELLE GIFFORDS. The weekend tragedy turned vitriol into a buzzword uttered by seemingly every TV talking head to describe the caustic, angry, hateful verbiage spewed so often these days by radio talk-show hosts and political candidates.
Vitriol is a very old term for sulfuric acid. The word was used in the time of alchemy, and its colorful history includes alleged links to secret Tarot card messages and the Philosopher's Stone, a legendary substance that could turn lead into gold and perhaps bring immortality. (Sound a bit like the Sorcerer's Stone in Harry Potter?) Sulfuric acid, of course, can transform many substances with its corrosive effects, which is why you and your pal Bart Simpson weren't supposed to mess with it in chemistry class. It's a key component of acid rain, the sulfur-emissions-tainted precipitation that kills forests, aquatic life and even soil.
The topic of word origins came up the other night. Our friends Janet and Dan were describing a pair of pileated woodpeckers they'd seen—you know, those almost crow-sized woodpeckers, one of the biggest types in North America. "What's pileated mean?" Janet asked.
The word comes from pileus, which is Latin for cap. In the case of the woodpecker, as you can tell from the photo above, the cap is red. Which also links the bird to the Renaissance. At that time, as artist and art historian Margaret Krug has pointed out to me, men often wore red caps of a distinctive design. The portrait below shows Federico da Montefeltro wearing one—a pileus. .
Pileus also has come to mean a flattened type of cloud that often forms on top of either a cumulus cloud, a cloud of volcanic ash or—if enough vitriol has been exchanged between the leaders of warring countries—the mushrooom cloud from a nuclear blast.
Swedish botanist Carl (or Carolus) Linnaeus, who invented our system of naming living things with a Latin genus and species (pileated woodpecker: dryocopus pileatus), would have been 304 years old had his genes been a little stronger. His naming system has been expanded and tinkered with, but he's still the one to thank for all those difficult terms you encounter when you start digging more deeply into the world of plants and animals.
Since I opened with Bart Simpson, I might as well close with another high-brow reference. Let me boldly suggest that without Carl Linnaeus, the Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons would not have been quite as funny. Creator Chuck Jones gave his two nemeses mock-scientific names that appeared at the bottom of the screen and changed from cartoon to cartoon. The ever-hungry, ever-frustrated coyote had names ranging from Road-Runnerus digestus and Eternalii famishiis to Carnivorous vulgaris and Hardheadipus oedipus. The Linnaean names for the elusive Road Runner included Acceleratii incredibus, Hot-roddicus supersonicus and Speedipus-rex.