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Carats are good for you
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Carats are good for you

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Time to get technical - is it carat, karat? Both words are pronounced in the same way, and have a common linguistic root, but have very different meanings. Confusing the two when making or buying jewellery can be an embarrassing (not to mention expensive) mistake.

A carat is a unit of weight used for gemstones (not a unit of size, as is commonly thought), whereas a karat is a unit for measuring the purity of gold. Carat is abbreviated as c. or ct, while karat is properly k. or kt.

It’s now internationally recognised that a carat weighs 200mg. A carat is a unit of weight, so a one-carat stone that consists of a heavier (more dense) gemstone will be smaller than one carat of a lighter gemstone, so a one carat sapphire will be smaller than a one carat diamond (diamonds are lighter).

Karats, on the other hand, measure the purity of gold, calculated on a base of 24 units. So the purest gold you can get is 24-karat gold (24/24ths gold), whereas 9k gold is just 9/24ths gold.

Incidentally, the root of both ‘carat’ and ‘karat’ is said to be the word ‘carob’, a Mediterranean bean used as a substitute for chocolate (and a crucial ingredient in the carob & orange roulade I used to make in my slimmer days, yum). Carob beans are unusual for being consistent in size so they tend to weigh the same, no matter where grown or when harvested, making them very useful as a unit of weight at least from Ancient Greek times onwards. By the 16th century AD, carob beans were still being used as units of weight by alchemists, called ‘carratus’ in Latin. It’s not hard to see how the modern jewellery terms developed from this usage.

And finally, other words that sound the same. When training for my first proper job (an editor at legal publisher Sweet & Maxwell), I used a ‘caret’ – a little symbol shaped like a hat (^), used to tell a printer to insert a word or phrase from the margin of the proof into the text. Apparently, the word ‘caret’ comes from the Latin for ‘lacking’ (‘carere’ means ‘to lack’).

The other sort of carrot is the tasty root vegetable that’s said to help with eyesight due to its high vitamin A content… and best enjoyed as carrot cake, in my humble (and cake-loving) opinion.

The root of the word ‘carrot’ lies in the Greek word for ‘head’ – a reminder, perhaps, that you should never eat a piece of carrot cake bigger than your head.