Thiol and error, or a wild goose chase.

The periodic table is taken pretty much for granted nowadays, especially in the light of the fact that any additions to it tend to arrive only a few atoms at a time - existing for the merest fleeting microsecond in the bowels of a Darmstadt accelerator for example. Likewise, not only are the names of the elements pretty much set in stone but the derivations of the names are also well documented. Thus we see planets and people alongside countries and colours; Greek light-bearers (phosphorus) jostle for position with German goblins (cobalt) and a Scottish town (strontium).

In all of this, however, a handful of elements appear to be in a class of their own insofar as the origins of their names actually refer to other elements. Thus zirconium and arsenic have roots in the Arabic/Persian words for gold (coloured), platinum stems from the Spanish for silver, and molybdenum from the Greek word for lead ore. Nickel sort of fits the bill as it is a shortening of Kupfernickel, or the Devil’s copper, but clearly the actual copper bit has been lost in the process. However, an idle glance at the claimed derivation of the name sulfur one day led me to wonder whether sulfur may also fall into this category. Though most text books will highlight the Latin origin of the name, some also tag on the Sanskrit sulvere (an ’Anglicised’ version of the more correct sulvari), suggesting an intriguing, possibly more ancient source.

Most books leave it that, but determined to dig a little deeper I consulted the Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon, which contains 160 000 entries from the Monier Williams Sanskrit Dictionary. Within this, sulvari is afforded the odd derivation ’enemy of copper’. Now that raised an intriguing question - if this derivation is correct and thus refers to the observation that sulfur tarnishes copper, and if the word was old enough to act as source for the Latin sulfur, then it would follow that the element would join the aforementioned elite group, as a non-metal named after a metal. Time to call in the experts.

Drs Eivind Kahrs and John Smith, both Readers in Sanskrit at Cambridge University’s Faculty of Oriental Studies, were happy to oblige. Had I happened upon an interesting observation?

’The first thing to say is that, so far as I can see, the word sulvari is attested only in lexica; specifically, the lexicon of Hemacandra is cited as the source of this word,’ observed Smith. Hmm - well if he had left it that I would have been none the wiser and could still have lived in hope. But there was a deadly coup de gr?ce to follow: ’Hemacandra lived in the 12th century. So your word is late, and cannot be the source of the Latin and Latin-derived words for "sulfur". It does not seem to have made it out of the lexica and into real usage even in India, where the normal word for sulfur appears to have been gandhaka (literally, "smelly"). The term sulva for "copper" is not common, and some 19th-century western scholars seem to have believed that it was actually a back-formation from sulvari; however, this cannot be so, since sulva occurs in the Arthasastra, an undatable but early text, probably a few centuries BC; sulvari can then be derived as a simple compound noun formed from sulva "copper" and ari "enemy". One source that I have seen explains the application to sulfur as being "because it causes copper etc. to decay" (tamradijarakatvat), but that source is 19th-century.’

Ah, well, so that’s that then. It was indeed a wild goose chase - ’sulfur’ is from the Latin and the Sanskrit plays no part. At least now we know; and it shows what you can find out from people who know what they’re talking about! And I’ve learnt my lesson; in future I promise not to stray into areas I know nothing about, in the vain hope of stumbling upon something interesting. Anyhow, next month: The Turin Shroud and the disappearance of the dinosaurs - are they related? You see it occurred to me that...