When browsing through names of minerals in English, one notices that they appear to very commonly be of Latin origin or otherwise latinized or at least foreign; I mean names like "Magnetite", "Hematite", "Dolomite", "Porphyry", "Chondrite", "Granite", &c&c.

It seems slightly strange to me that there aren't more names of more indigenous origin. I can't believe the Anglo-Saxons didn't "care" about stones, minerals and ores enough to name them before the Norman invasion, and even afterwards, many of these names appear to me to be of post-renaissance origin; surely miners and others dealing in stones of, say, the 14th or 15th centuries must have had names for them? Have these names simply not survived to the modern day for some reason, or am I under some other kind of misconception?

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    Actually minerals names origin appears to be more complex and from different sources: webmineral.com/help/NameOrigin.shtml#.VNkRPWWCOK0
    – user66974
    Commented Feb 9, 2015 at 20:00
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    I'm sure that there have been other, localized names. But, seriously, to most primitive people "rock" was all that was needed, with an occasional "rock that is good for arrows" thrown in. Only masons and miners cared much what kind of rock.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Feb 9, 2015 at 20:11
  • @HotLicks: Do note that I'm not speaking of "primitive" people, but about the medieval period and later. And I am indeed including "masons and miners".
    – Dolda2000
    Commented Feb 9, 2015 at 21:58
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    Ah, but certain "rocks" had particular appearances and/or characteristcs; e.g. lodestone, or agate, or limestone, or amber. These might not be what we would nowadays call "ores" or "minerals", but they are older, and I think non-Latin, names for rocks. And consider "fool's gold" (which IIUC is a synonym for iron pyrite). Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 6:46
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    And then there are geological terms for certain configurations or appearances of rocks, many from German origins: feldspar, gneiss. And mercury used to be called "quicksilver". Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 6:51

1 Answer 1


Here is a survey of rock and mineral names (excluding those of most familiar gemstones and metals) with their sources and first occurrence dates in English (as identified by Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary), from earliest to 1782:

chalk (from Old English cealc, before 12c)

flint (from Old English, before 12c)

salt [sodium chloride] (from Old English sealt, before 12c)

marble (from Middle English, 12c)

brimstone [sulfur] (From Middle English brinston, 12c)

chalcedony (from Middle English calcedonie, 13c)

gypsum (Latin, 14c)

jasper (from Middle English jaspre, 14c)

limestone (from Middle English roots, 14c)

onyx (from Middle English oniche, 14c)

saltpeter [potassium nitrate] (from Middle English salt petre, 14c)

slate (from Middle English sclate, 14c)

sulphur (Middle English, 14c), vitriol (Middle English, 14c)

chrysoprase (from Middle English crisopace, 15c)

emery (Middle English, 15c)

pumice (from Middle English pomis, 15c)

serpentine (Middle English, 15c)

lodestone (from Middle English, circa 1515)

ironstone (from Middle English roots, 1522)

agate (Middle French, 1570)

spar (from Low German, but akin to the Old English word spærstān [gypsum], 1581)

silex (Latin, ca. 1592)

basalt (from Latin, 1601)

sandstone (from Middle English roots, 1609)

talc [magnesium silicate] (French, 1610)

quartz (German, 1631)

granite (from Italian granito, 1646)

galena (Latin, 1671),

chert (origin unknown, 1679)

hornstone (from Middle English roots, 1728)

shale (from Middle English, 1747)

gneiss (from German, 1757)

hornblende (German, 1770)

pitchblende (German, 1770)

potstone (from Middle English roots, 1771)

feldspar (from German, 1772)

mica (New Latin, 1777)

schist (from French schiste, 1782)

Of the 38 names listed above, 17 are recorded from before 1500, and I suspect that others rocks and minerals (such as lodestone, ironstone, and sandstone) were known by those names for a number of years before they show up in published writings. Only five of the listed names—gypsum, silex, basalt, galena, and mica—come directly from Latin, and only the last of those is New Latin, the form adopted for many mineral names coined in the late 1700s.

Many other names have no doubt vanished from everyday English. Julian Jackson, Minerals and Their Uses: In a Series of Letters to a Lady (1849) mentions black-wad, ("an old English name for the Hydrated Peroxide of Manganese") and mill-stone (or "buhr-stone," a very hard variety of silica rock), for example.

It may be that the earliest names for various rocks were localized and ambiguous (along the lines of brownstone, blackstone, and whitestone) and couldn't be used meaningfully across larger geographical areas because the same name might refer to multiple minerals, as jade (for example) does today. But from the surviving early names (such as flint, chalk, marble, and brimstone), it seems likely that pre-Renaissance Britons were keenly aware of the different rocks and minerals around them, and certainly had names for any that might be useful or valuable.

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