tungsten, wolfram

Tungsten, element 74, was identified as a distinct element in 1783 by Spanish Basque brothers and chemists Juan José and Fausto Elhuyar. The name, however, is older, being used to refer to the ore in which the element is found. The word tungsten is a borrowing from Swedish, where it is a compound of tung (heavy) + sten (stone). Its English use dates to at least 1770.1

The element is sometimes, especially in older works, referred to by its German name, wolfram, from which its chemical symbol W comes. German use of wolfram dates to the 16th century, and its English use to at least 1757, when it is used in a translation of Henckel’s Pyritologia:

Though this tin ore be not easily separable from wolfram, a kind of mock-tin, or an irony tin mineral.

The origin of the word wolfram is unknown. It would seem likely that it is from a proper name, but this is not certain. Tradition has it that it is a compound of wolf (wolf) + rahm (cream). The second element could also be râm (soot). It is said to be the source of the modern Latin lupi spuma (wolf foam), described by Georgius Agricola in his 1546 De Natura Fossilium. But Agricola’s description of the mineral does not resemble wolfram, and the popular etymology of the German word may have arisen as an attempt to reconcile the two terms, rather than one coming from the other. And recorded use of wolfram in German is only from 1562, after the Latin term was coined.2


1Oxford English Dictionary, tungsten, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 30 October 2009, http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50259771

2Oxford English Dictionary, wolfram, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 30 October 2009, http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50286687

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