After the tragic Arizona shooting, the word “vitriol” was everywhere in the news. What is its literally dangerous meaning?

After Saturday’s shocking attack on Arizona lawmaker Gabrielle Giffords and a crowd of bystanders, an unusual word proliferated through all forms of media. Shortly after the shooting tragedy, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik cited “vitriolic rhetoric” as a potential source for the violence.

This article is not about politics or the relationship of media and violence in American culture. The topic at hand, of course, is “vitriol.” What is it?

Vitriol is an old-fashioned name for one of the most dangerous chemicals you can find: sulfuric acid. This substance is incredibly corrosive, meaning it eats away other substances due to chemical reactions. When sulfuric acid meets water, it produces an exothermic reaction, meaning that the chemical reaction with water produces heat. Reactions between the two are responsible for many horrific burns.

The acid is so corrosive that, even in diluted form, a drop of it will burn through a piece of paper. Medieval chemists named this substance vitriol after the Latin vitrium, “of glass.” In solid forms, sulfur compounds can have a glass-like appearance (like the image of crystallized copper sulfate above.)

Vitriol has been used poetically to refer to harsh speech since the 1700s. Sheriff Dupnik’s remarks are not the first time that the caustic word has been used to describe recent political discourse. In April, 2010, President Obama referred to some politically-themed talk shows as vitriol.

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