This week’s word is cobalt, not so much because it’s an unusual word, but because it has an unusual history. This post was inspired by a tweet by @BookishLex, one of many word enthusiasts on twitter. If you’re curious about others you can check out my list of etymology people – it’s a work in progress, a handy way to get in my daily dose of word geekery.
Cobalt entered the English language in the late 1600s to describe a steel grey metal, not the colour blue. The metal was rarer than nickel but similar in structure and was also sometimes called Parcelsus. It was discovered by George Brandt of Sweeden.
So how did the word become associated with blue? The rock from which the metal came was also laced with arsenic and sulphur (sulfur in American English) which, as you can imagine, didn’t have a healthy influence on the miners. The miners, who were seeking silver in the Harz Mountains in Germany, named the rock kobold (which became cobalt when it arrived in English). Kobold had an earlier meaning though, it was a household goblin from the 1200s – a term for a troublesome creature which was compounded from kobe (hut) and holt (goblin) in Middle High German. When the miners were troubled by a mysterious effect (the arsenic, for example) they blamed it on a local goblin.
The extension of cobalt to describe a shade of blue arose in the 1800s as a mineral containing the metal had been used to create that shade of blue for glass since the 1500s. We don’t know if the goblins themselves were blue, or appeared blue if you inhaled enough sulphur dust in the mine.
Until next time be careful of any blue goblins you encounter,
p.s. Since my last blog post I finished my 2019 NaNoWriMo challenge with 50,434 words and a fairly complete draft of “The Irish Family Christmas”. Plenty of editing needed, but that will be a job for 2020.