silver (n.)

"rare white metal, harder than gold, softer than copper, valued for its luster and malleability," Middle English silver, from Old English seolfor, Mercian sylfur, Northumbrian sulfer, "the metal silver; silver coin, money," from Proto-Germanic *silabur- (source also of Old Saxon silvbar, Old Frisian selover, Old Norse silfr, Middle Dutch silver, Dutch zilver, Old High German silabar, German silber "silver; money," Gothic silubr "silver"), which is of uncertain origin.

It seems to be Germanic/Balto-Slavic (source also of Old Church Slavonic s(u)rebo, Russian serebro, Polish srebro, Lithuanian sidabras "silver"), but has long been presumed to be a Wanderwort (a loan-word that has spread among several languages) displacing the usual IE word for the metal (represented by Latin argentum; see argent).

Basque zilharr "silver" usually is considered a loan-word from West Germanic, but the Germanic form lately has been compared to old Celtic words used in Spain, and because the rest of Celtic uses the argentum word, this suggests the borrowing might be in the other direction, and Germanic word might be from "a Hispano-Celtic innovation due to an Iberian donor language. In this connection, the old comparison of Basque zilharr is attractive" [Boutkan].

From c. 1300 as "articles, plates, etc. of silver, silverware." As a color name from late 15c. Chemical abbreviation Ag is from Latin argentum "silver."

silver (v.)

mid-14c., silveren, "cover or plate with silver," from silver (n.). Old English had beseolfrian. The meaning "tinge with gray" (of hair) is from c. 1600. Related: Silvered; silvering.

silver (adj.)

"made of silver," late Old English seolfor, from the noun (see silver (n.), also compare silvern). Of voices, words, etc., from 1520s in reference to the metal's pleasing resonance; silver-tongued is from 1590s. Of hair by 1580s.

The silver age (1560s) was a phrase used by Greek and Roman poets. A silver fox is a North American variety of the common red fox with silver-tipped black hair.  A silver spoon in the literal sense is attested from late 15c.; see spoon (n.). The old figurative expression fish with a silver hook is attested from c. 1600.

The Silver Hook, and the Golden Bait, catch all the Fish upon dry Land. [Defoe, "The Union-Proverb," 1708]

updated on October 29, 2022