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The word opal is adapted from the Roman term opalus, but the origin of this word is a matter of debate. However, most modern references suggest it is adapted from the Sanskrit word úpala.

References to the gem are made by Pliny the Elder. It is suggested it was adapted it from Ops, the wife of Saturn and goddess of fertility. The portion of Saturnalia devoted to Ops was "Opalia", similar to opalus.

Another common claim that the term is adapted from the Greek word, opillos. This word has two meanings, one is related to "seeing" and forms the basis of the English words like "opaque", the other is "other" as in "alias" and "alter". It is claimed that opalus combined these uses, meaning "to see a change in color". However, historians have noted that the first appearances of opillos do not occur until after the Romans had taken over the Greek states in 180 BC, and they had previously used the term paederos.

However, the argument for the Sanskrit origin is strong. The term first appears in Roman references around 250 BC, at a time when the opal was valued above all other gems. The opals were supplied by traders from the Bosporus, who claimed the gems were being supplied from India. Before this the stone was referred to by a variety of names, but these fell from use after 250 BC.

In the Middle Ages, opal was considered a stone that could provide great luck because it was believed to possess all the virtues of each gemstone whose color was represented in the color spectrum of the opal. It was also said to confer the power of invisibility if wrapped in a fresh bay leaf and held in the hand.