thulium, Thule

Thulium, element 69, is yet another example of an element named after someplace in Scandinavia, or in this case, Scandinavia itself. The element was discovered in 1879 by Swedish chemist Per Teodor Cleve, who dubbed it thulium, after his native land; from the 12 September 1879 issue of Chemical News and Journal of Physical Science:

For the radical of the oxide placed between ytterbia and erbia [...] I propose the name of Thullium [sic], derived from Thulé, the ancient name of Scandinavia.1

The name Thule, is an ancient name referring to a land to the distant north. In English, the name appears as early as c.888 and King Alfred’s translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy:

Oð ðæt iland þe we hatað Tyle, þ[æt] is on þa norðwestende þisses middaneardes, þær ne bið nawþer ne on sumera niht, ne on wintra dæg.
(About the island that we call Thule, it is in the northwest of this middle-earth, where there is neither night in summer, nor day in winter.)2

Exactly what modern land corresponds to the Anglo-Saxon Thule, is unknown. It could have referred to the Shetland Islands, Iceland, or somewhere in Norway. In any case, the term came to mean a land to the far north.


1Oxford English Dictionary, thulium, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 24 October 2009, http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50252117.

2Oxford English Dictionary, Thule, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 24 October 2009, http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50252112

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