• unobtainium •
ên-êb-tayn-ee-êm • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, mass
Meaning: A hypothetical or fictional material, especially metal, that is extremely rare, valuable, and extraordinarily difficult if not impossible to find but which is the solution to many development problems.
Notes: Here is what is probably a nonce word. The case against its being a nonce word is that its uses are expanding and its longevity (see Word History). The case for its being a nonce word is based on the existence of other nonce words with the same meaning: unaffordium, impossibilium, and fictionite.
In Play: This word has a humorous connotation in most expressions: "The bicycle event was aswarm with dayglo lycra-clad bikers on gazillion-dollar unobtainium wonder bikes." It is also the solution to many engineering problems: "For their project, engineers needed a metal with a high melting point, that is stronger and more ductile than any other metal, but with a near zero density; in other words, unobtainium."
Word History: Unobtainium first appeared in the Marshall (Michigan) Evening Chronicle (February 6-8, 1956) in an article about the scientific development of a new, unnamed metal that was harder than all others. We don't know how long before its publication the scientists involved were using it. It obviously comprises un- "not" + obtain + -ium, a suffix usually associated with the Periodic Table of Elements. Obtain was borrowed from Old French obtenir "obtain", passed down from Latin obtinere "to hold". This verb is made up of ob- against" + tin-, the combining form of ten- "to hold" + -ere, an infinitive suffix. Latin inherited ten- from PIE ten-/ton- "to stretch", source also of English thin, and Latinate and Hellenic borrowings such as tendon, tense, tent and tone. (Gratitude today is due Barbara Beeton for noticing and suggesting today's humorously exciting Good Word.)
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