mid-14c., ambre grice "ambergris; perfume made from ambergris," from the phrase in Old French (13c.) and Medieval Latin, from Arabic 'anbar "ambergris, morbid secretion of sperm-whale intestines used in perfumes and cookery" (see ambergris), which was introduced in the West at the time of the Crusades. Arabic -nb- often is pronounced "-mb-."
In Europe, amber was extended to fossil resins from the Baltic (late 13c. in Anglo-Latin; c. 1400 in English), and this has become the main sense as the use of ambergris has waned. Perhaps the perceived connection is that both were found washed up on seashores. Or perhaps it is a different word entirely, of unknown origin. Formerly they were distinguished as white or yellow amber for the Baltic fossil resin and ambergris "gray amber;" French distinguished the two substances as ambre gris and ambre jaune.
Remarkable for its static electricity properties, Baltic amber was known to the Romans as electrum (compare electric). Amber as an adjective in English is from c. 1500; as a color name 1735. In the Old Testament it translates Hebrew chashmal, a shining metal.
late 15c., pomendambre, "mix of aromatic herbs in a bag or perforated apple-shaped shell, carried or worn around the neck as a preservative against infection," from Old French pomme d'embre (13c.), from pome "apple" (from Latin pomum; see Pomona) + ambre "amber" (see amber). By mid-20c. the word was used for an orange stuck with cloves and hung in a wardrobe or placed in a drawer with clothing.
early 15c., from Old French ambre gris "gray amber," "a wax-like substance of ashy colour, found floating in tropical seas, a morbid secretion from the intestines of the sperm-whale. Used in perfumery, and formerly in cookery" [OED], via Medieval Latin from Arabic 'anbar (see amber). Its origin was known to Constantinus Africanus (obit c. 1087), but it was a mystery in Johnson's day, and he records nine different theories; "What sort of thing is Ambergrease?" was a type of a puzzling question beyond conjecture. King Charles II's favorite dish was said to be eggs and ambergris [Macauley, "History of England"].
Praise is like ambergris; a little whiff of it, by snatches, is very agreeable; but when a man holds a whole lump of it to his nose, it is a stink and strikes you down. [Pope, c. 1720]
French gris is from Frankish *gris or some other Germanic source (cognates: Dutch grijs, Old High German gris; see gray (adj.)).
1640s, first used in English by physician Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682), apparently coined as Modern Latin electricus (literally "resembling amber") by English physicist William Gilbert (1540-1603) in treatise "De Magnete" (1600), from Latin electrum "amber," from Greek ēlektron "amber" (Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus), also "pale gold" (a compound of 1 part silver to 4 of gold); which is of unknown origin.
Vim illam electricam nobis placet appellare [Gilbert]
Originally the word described substances which, like amber, attract other substances when rubbed. Meaning "charged with electricity" is from 1670s; the physical force so called because it first was generated by rubbing amber. In many modern instances, the word is short for electrical. Figurative sense is attested by 1793. Electric light is from 1767. Electric toothbrush first recorded 1936; electric blanket in 1930. Electric typewriter is from 1958. Electric guitar is from 1938; electric organ coined as the name of a hypothetical future instrument in 1885.
before vowels electr-, word-forming element meaning "electrical, electricity," Latinized form of Greek ēlektro-, combining form of ēlektron "amber" (see electric). As a stand-alone, formerly often short for electrotype, electroplate.
Restricted sense of "drinking glass" is from early 13c. and now excludes other glass vessels. Meaning "a glass mirror" is from 14c. Meaning "glass filled with running sand to measure time" is from 1550s; meaning "observing instrument" is from 1610s.