What in the Word?! The bedeviling origins of ‘nickel’
In our last What in the Word?!, we saw how German goblins, called Kobolds, gave their name to the element cobalt. Centuries back, miners in the mountains of northern Germany dug up cobalt-rich ore that misleadingly looked like silver. They blamed the deception – superstitiously or facetiously – on those mythical, mischievous Kobolds. But the work of underground imps on the periodic table doesn’t stop with cobalt.
The ‘copper devil’
Early German miners were also lured by ore that promised another valuable metal, copper, but no matter how hard they tried, it never yielded any. And like cobalt, the ore was often rife with arsenic, which can be poisonous during processing. So, they cursed the mineral as Kupfernickel, or ‘copper devil’. What the devil?
Kupfer is the German for copper, which comes from the Latin cuprum. That helps explain why the element’s chemical symbol is Cu – not Co, claimed by our friend, cobalt. The Latin cuprum, in turn, is shortened from Cyprium aes, or ‘Cyprian metal’, making the island of Cyprus, where the metal was historically mined, the ultimate source of the word copper.
Now, Nickel was a pet-form of Nikolaus, or Nicholas, itself used as a nickname for the ‘devil’ in parts of Germany in 17th century. Why this name was chosen is unclear, but perhaps commonness or taboo avoidance played a part.
English has a similar satanic sobriquet in Old Nick. Some word historians have thought Old Nick arises from a lost myth about St. Nicholas slaying a sea monster, called a nicker in Old English. But distinguished etymologist Anatoly Liberman thinks it’s this devilish German Nickel that supplies the Old Nick appellation.
Do hold your breath, as we’ll return to Old Nick shortly. And yes, you may want to actually hold your breath – well, at least your nose.
Heavy stones, hungry wolves
In 1751, a few decades after his contemporary Georg Brandt isolated cobalt, Swedish scientist Axel Fredrick Cronstedt extracted a new metal from Kupfernickel. He called it nickel, short for kopparnickel, the Swedish name for the mineral he was purifying.
Cronstedt gets credit for discovering the element nickel, though the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) notes that he technically found what we now call nickeline, a compound of nickel and arsenic. Nickel was first fully purified in 1775 by another great Swedish mineralogist, Torbern Bergman.
Around 1755, Cronstedt may have also coined the name for another chemical element: tungsten, literally ‘heavy stone’ in Swedish. (Can you see the English stone in sten?) This mineral had a high-density, hence the name, and now goes by scheelite. Scheelite honours yet one more Swedish chemist, Carl Scheele, whom some others credit the coinage tungsten. Scheele found that the mineral contained a new type of oxide (tungstic acid), which he concluded had to be from a new metal.
In the 1780s, two – not Swedish but Spanish – scientists and brothers, Juan and Fausto Elhuyar, isolated Scheele’s suspected new metal from wolframite, a mineral mix of tungsten, iron, and manganese. Taught and aided by Torbern Bergman, the Elhuyars so named the new element wolfram, which is why tungsten’s chemical abbreviation is W. Tungsten and wolfram compete as names for the element, though tungsten prevails in the English-speaking world.
OK, the Swedes rock when it comes to rock, but wolfram is interesting and relevant for lexical reasons, too, as it appears to join cobalt and nickel as a colourful miner’s term. Many etymologists take wolfram as the German for ‘wolf’s foam’, joining wolf (wolf) and rahm (cream). As chemist Katherine Holt tells the RSC:
Many centuries ago mid-European tin smelters observed that when a certain mineral was present in the tin ore, their yield of tin was much reduced. They called this mineral ‘wolfs foam’ because, they said, it devoured the tin much like a wolf would devour a sheep! Thus over time the name ‘wolframite’ evolved for this tungsten-containing ore.
Others interpret wolfram as the German for ‘wolf’s soot’ (ram, soot). Philologist Ernest Klein explains it was ‘so called in sign of contempt because it was regarded of lesser value than tin and caused a considerable loss of tin during the smelting process in the furnace’.
The ‘farting devil’
Speaking of smelting, nickel didn’t just bedevil Germans in the bowels of the earth. In the 17th century, a type of rustic, rye bread emerged in Westphalia, popularly called Pumpernickel by soldiers who ate it as part of their rations during the Thirty Years’ War. The bread was heavy and coarse, apparently, causing some indigestion – of the noisier variety. And so they dubbed the dough Pumpernickel, literally ‘farting Devil’. Pumpern, with likely imitative origins, is a German verb for ‘to break wind’.
Anatoly Liberman, once again, helps us with the older roots of Pumpernickel, explaining the term had earlier referred to a short, fat, rascally laughingstock in German folklore who evolved into a lowbrow prankster/clown figure. It made for an apt name, literally and figuratively, for the troublesome bread. Liberman thinks that English mercenaries who fought in the Thirty Years’ War on the continent picked up the roguish Nickel epithet from Germans, exporting it as Old Nick back home.
‘Two cents’ on five cents
For Americans and Canadians, nickel doesn’t evoke devils or dough as much as a coin worth five cents. But in the US, the original nickels were worth one cent, then three, and finally a five piece in 1866. The Civil War caused many people to hoard coins, made then as they were of gold and silver, compelling the US government to mint coins from more abundant, and less precious, metals like nickel and copper. There were five-cent pieces before the nickel in the US, but they were called half-dimes. Via the French disme, dime ultimately goes back to the Latin decimus, or ‘tenth’.
The nickel was a handy currency. When Coca-Cola debuted its soft drink in 1886, it cost just a nickel – as it did for over seventy years later. One could also watch a film for a nickel at a nickelodeon. First attested by the Oxford English Dictionary in 1888, a nickelodeon joined nickel to odeon, ‘a concert hall’, a word from ancient Greek and also appearing in melodeon.
A nickel’s quantity also inspired slang, like a nickel, or a five-year sentence in prison, or a nickel bag of marijuana, which costs five dollars. In American Football, a nickel defence features five players called defensive backs, or nickel backs – no relation to the Canadian rock band, often a punchline in popular culture. The band name comes from bassist Mike Kroeger, who, when he worked at Starbucks, would give customers their change for their coffees saying, ‘Here’s your nickel back’.
And yet American nickels are themselves a misnomer. Since their issue, and for most of their history, they’ve been made of only 25% nickel. The rest is copper – and I think we know a few German miners who’d like to get their hands on that.