People must have dealt with static electrical discharge for thousands of years; well before they began to understand the principles of electricity.

What would a static discharge be called in early modern English and old-English?

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    Electric : from Latin electrum "amber," from Greek elektron "amber" (Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus), also "pale gold"Originally the word described substances which, like amber, attract other substances when rubbed. - Meaning "charged with electricity" is from 1670s; the physical force so called because it first was generated by rubbing amber. etymonline.com/index.php?term=electric – user66974 Jul 6 '16 at 14:40
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    @Josh61 sounds like an answer. – bib Jul 6 '16 at 14:41
  • @Josh61 - Very nice and elucidating. That part is at least one very interesting facet of a complete answer. – Gavin42 Jul 6 '16 at 14:47
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    The property now called 'static electricity' was known to the philosophers of ancient Greece. In fact the word electricity comes from ‘elektron’, the Greek name for amber. Amber is a resinous mineral used to make jewellery. It is probable that small fibres of clothing clung to amber jewels and were quite difficult to remove. Trying to rub the fibres off made the situation worse, causing early philosophers to wonder why. – user66974 Jul 6 '16 at 15:43
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    William Gilbert mentioned the 'amber effect' in his ground-breaking book On Magnetism, published in 1600. He noticed that the attraction between 'electrics' was much weaker than magnetism and wrongly said that electrics never repelled. practicalphysics.org/… – user66974 Jul 6 '16 at 15:43

Amber effect?

I don't have the answer to your question as to what "static electricity" was called before the term "electric" was coined, at the beginning of the 17th century:

  • 1640s, first used in English by physician Sir TThomas Browne (1605-1682), apparently coined as Modern Latin electricus (literally "resembling amber") by English physicist William Gilbert (1540-1603) in treatise "De Magnete" (1600), from Latin electrum "amber, " from Greek elektron "amber" (Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus), also "pale gold" (a compound of 1 part silver to 4 of gold); which is of unknown origin. (Etymonline)

Nonetheless the issue is interesting and I think it may be constructive to provide some more details:

  • Long before any knowledge of electricity existed people were aware of shocks from electric fish. Ancient Egyptian texts dating from 2750 BC referred to these fish as the "Thunderer of the Nile", and described them as the "protectors" of all other fish.

  • Electric fish were again reported millennia later by ancient Greek, Roman and Arabic naturalists and physicians.....Patients suffering from ailments such as gout or headache were directed to touch electric fish in the hope that the powerful jolt might cure them. Possibly the earliest and nearest approach to the discovery of the identity of lightning, and electricity from any other source, is to be attributed to the Arabs, who before the 15th century had the Arabic word for lightning (raad) applied to the electric ray.

  • Ancient cultures around the Mediterranean knew that certain objects, such as rods of amber, could be rubbed with cat's fur to attract light objects like feathers. ***Thales of Miletos made a series of observations on static electricity around 600 BC, from which he believed that friction rendered amber magnetic.

  • Electricity would remain little more than an intellectual curiosity for millennia until 1600, when the English scientist William Gilbert made a careful study of electricity and magnetism, distinguishing the lodestone effect from static electricity produced by rubbing amber.

  • He coined the New Latin word electricus ("of amber" or "like amber", from ήλεκτρον [elektron], the Greek word for "amber") to refer to the property of attracting small objects after being rubbed.

  • This association gave rise to the English words "electric" and "electricity", which made their first appearance in print in Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica of 1646


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    What did you find regarding use of "lightening" or "thunder"? When it's dark, one can easily see the spark of a static discharge, and it's not hard to draw similarities to lightening. – user39425 Jul 7 '16 at 0:05
  • "Possibly the earliest and nearest approach to the discovery of the identity of lightning, and electricity from any other source, is to be attributed to the Arabs". Yet the Egyptians named it after thunder long before them; making the link between fish and lightning..? Or did these fish also emit a noise when discharging? – Rob Oct 23 '17 at 2:33

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