The Vocabularist: When plastics stopped being plastic

Coloured plastic bowls Image copyright iStock

The word "plastic" - often in the news because of pollution rows, carrier bag controversies and Ai Weiwei - has shown itself to be as adaptable as the material it describes.

Plastikos in Greek describes something which can be squashed into shape, from the verb plassein, to mould. It was used by the philosopher Plato, who wrote that of the four elements earth was the most easily moulded (plastikotate) unlike air, fire and water.

One sense of the word, denoting a craftsman's material, or his skill - and often used metaphorically - has not really changed since then.

When the Roman engineer Vitruvius called the sculptor's skill ratio plastica or Wordsworth said political reformers had "stuff at hand, plastic as they could wish" they were using the word as we do when we talk of plastic explosive or the plastic arts.

But as the artificial plastics used to make so many different items began to appear in the mid-19th Century, the word started on a journey.

Chemists discovered that natural materials such as plant fibres and camphor, when treated with chemicals, produced substances which were remarkable for their flexibility and ease of moulding.

Image copyright Alamy
Image caption Bakelite: Vintage plastics may be very stylish, but not "plastic" in the original sense

Among the first were collodion, discovered in 1848 and still used in surgical dressings, and celluloid, invented in the 1850s, which played a huge role in the development of photographic films and then of the movie industry.

The "plastic" quality of these materials was highly prized. Celluloid "can be made plastic again and moulded into any required form… its uses are numerous, and are constantly increasing", wrote the Manchester Times in 1877.

From the early 20th Century the growing array of artificial materials themselves began to be referred to as plastic or plastics.

Nevertheless, it was only in the 1950s that "quality" UK newspapers started saying things were "made of plastic" rather than "made of plastic material".

Meanwhile, the word's meaning developed so that sometimes it is rather the opposite of the original sense.

A plastic fork, for instance, could be said to be anything but plastic.

The material it was made from was plastic - that is, easily moulded - but the fork itself is brittle and quite incapable of being moulded into anything else.

Unless it is melted again - and then it stops being a fork.


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