Although the symbol of silver, Ag, is derived from the Latin and Greek words for silver—argentum and argyros—the word used in English is derived from Slavic and Germanic Silubr and Sirebro, as well as Old English Seolfor. The alchemy symbol of silver (a crescent moon) and dalton symbol (a coinlike circumscribed letter S) convey the impression of silver as a valued and precious element.
In Asia Minor and on islands in the Aegean Sea, dumps of slag (scum formed by molten metal surface oxidation) demonstrate that silver was likely separated from lead as early as 4000 b.c. The use of silver as a precious metal with trade value appears to have begun around 600 b.c., when weighed piecesof silver were exchanged for goods. Silver coinage debuted circa 550 b.c. in the Mediterranean, and was adopted by various empires, dynasties, and nation-states thereafter. Today, only Mexico uses silver in circulating coinage.
The Phoenicians and early Greeks knew to store water, wine, and vinegar in silver-lined vessels during long sea voyages, just as later American pioneers added silver coins to water barrels and jugs of milk to keep them fresh.41 The phrase “born with a silver spoon in his mouth” referred originally to health and not wealth, as silver pacifiers and baby spoons were used to help ward off childhood illnesses.
A traded commodity on the world’s markets, silver had been used as an abstract financial standard for various economies throughout modern banking history until the late 19th century. While the United States incorporates silver purely in commemorative and proof coins, the state of Utah passed the “Legal Tender Act of 2011” to allow its residents to use silver and gold coins produced by the US Mint as cash with value based on weight rather than minted face value.50,60
Beyond the economic role of silver, the electrical and thermal conductive properties of the element make it an invaluable material for scientific instrument manufacture and engineering. Because silver contacts neither corrode nor overheat, silver is commonly used in electronic devices and appliances. Silver was a key component of early telecommunications—it was the choice for Morse’s first telegraph contacts in 1844—and made the jet age possible, as only silver-plated bearings have the adequate dry lubricity necessary for safe engine shutdown without volatile oil lubricants. Today, washing machines, cars, smartphones, and many types of consumer electronics, from televisions to toaster ovens, all use small amounts of silver in their functional parts.
Silver is also used to “make rain”: silver iodide crystals, whose lattice structure is similar to ice, are released into “supercooled” (between 7 and 25°F) clouds, causing water droplets in clouds to attach and form ice crystals that become large and heavy enough to drop from the cloud and melt into raindrops en route to Earth.