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Word of the Week/Almost Wordless Wednesday


Word of the Week/Almost Wordless Wednesday

Last tangent from the Gem Show:

As a person drawn to bright shiny objects and who picks up rocks, it's easy for me to think the word "touchstone," and to think it as a stone that you touch, and so a talisman, a symbol of go(o)d luck, a reminder. And of course it is all those things.

But there's more to it--more to it literally, and therefore more to it metaphorically--in a way that calls me, at least, to level up, up!

The "touch" part of touchstone didn't originally refer to fondling a rock in your pocket (get your mind out of that pocket!) but to the part of touching that deals with figuring out what something is, putting something to the test, feeling something out. (It's interesting how much of logic and measuring goes straight back to touch, test, taste, look, knock it and see how it rings.)


A touchstone was a piece of soft black stone, usually jasper or slate, with fine grain. The blackness and the fine grain mean that the stone shows up color,  and the softness means that it can be easily marked up. So a touchstone was used to test the purity of a piece of silver or gold, based on how it marked the stone.

Noteworthy here:

  •  It's not about the stone; it's about the thing that touches the stone (silver, gold, or the person with the rock in her pocket)
  • But the stone is marked by the one that touches it
  • In that marking, the stone expresses a rating/value of the thing that touches it
  • The stone is used to make this rating/judgment, but the stone itself makes no judgment

So, the stone is an interpretive catalyst for the assayer of gold. It gets scuffed/marked/stained with gold, and it can be wiped clean (clean = black) and reused. 

Metaphorically? I want to leave that open to everyone to find your own. But if my touchstones are in fact tests of the purity of my gold, then every time I touch them I'll be asking myself whether I'm being the nickel-alloyed 8-carat version of myself or the purest dark 22-carat version. There are five words for gold in Biblical Hebrew with slightly different nuances; perhaps I'll be asking myself whether I'm paz  today or charutz. Which of many excellences...

But don't forget--I won't forget--be sure to ask who established the criterion for purity/quality/excellence. It didn't come from the stone, which is just a catalyst. Make sure it's a value that's meaningful to you, rather than someone else's "should."

About the Author

Ela Harrison

Ela is a wordsmith and herb lover who has lived in many places and currently resides in Tucson, AZ.

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