Iron, element number 26, is one of the few element names that has its origins in Old English. It has cognates throughout the Germanic and Celtic languages. The word existed in Old English in three forms, isern, isen, and iren.
Of the three, isern appears first, dating at least to c.897 and King Alfred’s translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care:
Genim ðe ane iserne hierstepannan, & sete betweoxn ðe & Hierusalem for iserne weall. Ðurh ða pannan is getacnod se wielm ðæs modes, & ðurh ðæt isern ðæt mægen ðara ðreatunga.
(Take an iron frying pan and set it between you and Jerusalem as an iron wall. By the pan is signified the fervor of the spirit, and by the iron the power of reproof.)
This form survives into the 11th century.
The isen form is first cited in the Laws of Æthelstan, set down c.940. This form, which corresponds to the modern German Eisen, is found in Kentish dialect as late as the 14th century.
Iren, which gives us the modern iron, is the last to appear. It’s earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is in the poem Genesis B, lines 382b–384a, written c.1000, and which appears in the Caedmon or Junius manuscript, Oxford Bodleian MS Junius 11:
Licgað me ymbe
Heardes irenes hate geslægene
(Great gratings lie upon me, hammered hot of hard iron.)
Iron has the chemical symbol Fe, taken from among the first letters of its Latin name, ferrum. The Latin also gives us the adjective ferrous.
(The OED includes two very early citations for isærn in its entry for iron, bracketing the citations, which indicates that this is a different sense. These are from the Epinal and Erfurt glossaries (Epinal Vosges Bibliotheque Municipale MS 72 and Erfurt Codex Amplonianus f. 42), two early Latin-English word lists dating to the early and late 8th century respectively. These two early manuscripts gloss the Latin alchior, the kingfisher bird, as isærn. In modern German, the kingfisher is the eisvogel, or ice-bird. So these two early citations appear to be early forms of ice, not iron.)1
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton