• asphalt •
æs-fawlt • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: A dark solid or semisolid mixture of crushed stone or sand bound with a petroleum byproduct, used to pave, roof, or waterproof.
Notes: Today's word is a verb, too, meaning "to pave or coat with asphalt". Macadam has migrated from its original meaning of a road surface made of crushed, compacted stone to one similar to that of asphalt. Today macadam has a binder, often of the same origin as asphalt. (For alphaDictionary's treatment of macadam, see unremacadamized in our Archives.) Today's word provides the epithet for the modern metropolis, asphalt jungle, popularized in the 1950 film noir by that name directed by John Huston. Do not mispronounce this word ashphalt!
In Play: Asphalt, or mineral pitch, has always been found naturally in many parts of the world; in the Old Testament, it is called 'slime'. The earliest reported use of asphalt was in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon of King Nebuchadnezzar II in the 6th century BCE, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. According to the Greek historians, the gardens were built of brick and asphalt protected by lead.
Word History: Originally, asphalt meant the resinous mineral pitch found in biblical lands. It comes from Medieval Latin asphaltus", from Greek asphaltos, which might have come from a- "not" + sphallein "to cause to fall or injure", since asphalt was used as a building material to strengthen walls. More likely it was borrowed from another as yet unknown language. (We don't want to tar our reputation with ingratitude, so thanks to James De Monte of Toronto for recommending asphalt for today's Good Word.)
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