Word of the Week! Solvent

Collection of solventsI build plastic models as a hobby, and for much of the work, among the adhesives I employ a glue that works as a solvent. It dissolves things, making parts stick by making polystyrene soft.

Our word has, in business, nearly a contrary meaning. One who is not bankrupt and can pay debts is also called “solvent.” Instead of taking away something, solvency here adds solidity. Or perhaps solvents that work as adhesives add strength by temporarily weakening?

Yet that cannot be the case: if you have worked with strong enough solvents, you know that they dissolve completely the substance called a solute, resulting in a solution. Yes, I got a C in college chemistry.

It amazes me that both senses of our word, the two most commonly heard nowadays, date to about the same time, if one studies the OED entry.

Incidentally, we often speak of the bankrupt as “insolvent,” a sense not used with chemicals (as far as I know).

This post will remain a mystery to me. Why did such different meanings emerge from the same Latin roots?  That’s one of the things I most enjoy about looking at familiar-seeming words. “Solvent” has a frequency band of 6 (of 8) at the OED. it’s a daily word.

Nominate a word students need to learn by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image of solvents courtesy of Wikipedia.