OT: ety of "damascus" steel

Amy West medievalist at W-STS.COM
Thu Apr 18 20:24:08 UTC 2013


It’s not, as Donald LaRocca, the current curator of arms and armor at
The Met, confirmed. “Some writers will use Damascus steel, watered
steel, or wootz steel interchangeably,” LaRocca sighed. “The term
Damascus is used pretty loosely.” Pleading his limited expertise in this
area, LaRocca suggested I speak to Ann Feuerbach, who has a Ph.D. in
Archaeological Science and has written extensively about wootz and other
types of crucible steels.

“There is a great deal of misinformation out there regarding crucible
Damascus steel (aka wootz, pulad, hinduwani),” Feuerbach says.
“Basically, don’t believe any of it.” Feuerbach has spent much of her
career trying to pin down the terminology. For example, in a 2005 post
at vikingsword.com, much of which was used in a subsequent article for
the May 2006 issue of JOM, the technical journal of The Minerals, Metals
& Materials Society, she wrote about the origins of the word Damascus:

“If there’s blood on the sword and you start polishing it, the sword
“The origin of the name Damascus steel is frequently attributed to the
crusaders, who, as the legend goes, were introduced to these blades in
Damascus and brought the word and the legend of the steel back with them
upon their return to Europe (e.g. Sherby and Wadsworth, 1985, 112).
Although this assertion is common, no reference to crusaders having used
the term has ever been reported in any of the literature. There are more
credible roots for the origin of sword names. The Islamic writers
al-Kindi and al-Beruni name swords based on surface appearance, place of
production or forging, or the name of the smith. There are three likely
sources for the term Damascus in the context of swords. The word for
water in Arabic is, damas (Sachse, 1994, 13) and Damascus blades are
often described as exhibiting a water-pattern on their surface. Al-Kindi
called swords produced and forged in Damascus as Damascene (al-Hassan,
1978, 35). Additionally, al-Beruni mentions a sword-smith called
Damasqui who made swords of crucible steel (Said, 1989, 219-220).”

So, according to Dr. Feuerbach, Damascus steel was not named for the
city where Westerners are thought to have first encountered it. Not only
is Damascus steel not wootz, it isn’t even named after Damascus. I like
the water explanation best since it dovetails nicely with terms like
watered steel—I’m going with that.


I have not checked to see if the OED etymologist blog has addressed this
yet. But I note that the OED entry for Damascus, n. is unrevised. . . .

---Amy West

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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