Finding information about what static electricity was called before electricity is difficult because of one reason. The Greek root word for electricity has been in use for over 2,600 years. While manmade electrical generation is relatively new, people have known about and talked about electricity since the dawn of time because they could observe lightning and they knew that certain fish, such as eels, generated it.
Because electricity has been known for so long, your question is really more about languages than anything else. Early Modern English dates back only 600 years. Before that was Middle English, which is only 800 to 900 years old and not understandable by most people today. Old English is a totally different language, and even that is only 1,500 years old.
So, you might as well be asking what people called a table, a house, a dog, a tree or anything else for that matter. It was a totally different language.
The origin of the English word electricity derives from the Greek word elektron, which was the name of the substance now called amber. Amber is fossilized tree resin. The Greek mathematician and theorist Thales conducted experiments on amber sometime around 600 BC. Amber could attract light objects and produce a static charge when rubbed with wool or other furs.
Later, the Romans adapted the Greek word into the Latin adjective electricus, meaning “of amber.” This word has been thought to be used to describe electrical phenomena such as what can be done with amber, but no real evidence shows up until about 1600 AD when it was used by William Gilbert in a New Latin tome entitled De Magnete, Magneticisque Corporibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellure, which translates to On the Magnet and Magnetic Bodies, and on the Great Magnet Earth.
Today, Gilbert is credited as the originator of the English words electric and electricity. By the beginning of the next century, the terms were well embedded into the English language.
As a side note, the actual word electricity is not used correctly by most English-speaking people. The word is often used to refer to our source of power produced by the electric companies. However, that force is not really electricity. It is more accurately described as electromagnetic energy.
Posted 596 day ago