Which Of These Metal Derives Its Name From German Mythology?
The cultures of the world long used myths and superstitions to explain everything under the sun and the art of mining and metallurgy was no exception. Centuries ago German miners uncovered veins of ore that looked like silver but were difficult to smelt and often yielded little to no silver in the process. They took to calling the ore and the metal found therein “kobalt” (which was derived from “kobold”).
Kobold is the German word for goblin and the miners maintained that it was mischievous goblins that stole the ore they wanted (the missing silver) and replaced it with the ore they didn’t want (the seemingly unsmeltable cobalt). In reality the cobalt was just intermingled with the silver, no effort by trickster goblins required. In the 16th century a method for extracting the “kobalt” (“kobold”) was discovered, the name stuck, and when the it made the jump to English it became “cobalt”.
Cobalt is not the only metal name we can trace back to German mythology. The metal nickel also derives its name from German and under nearly identical circumstances. Again, German miners found an ore that resembled the ore they wanted (copper ore) as it shared a similar reddish hue but it wasn’t copper ore but nickel ore. They blamed the mix up on Nickel, a mischievous German spirit, and claimed he planted the “fake” copper there to toy with them. They called the metal “kupfernickel” or “copper nickel” to reflect their belief that it was created by Nickel. Later when the ore was properly extracted in its own right, the “kupfer” bit was dropped and it was simply called nickel.
Image courtesy of Alchemist-hp.