I went out for lunch at a Jack Astor’s with co-workers today. As they do at those restaurants, our waitress wrote her name on the brown paper on the table: CHELC. We thought she had stopped partway through because she was distracted by something, but actually she was just writing Chelsea (or Chelcey or whatever) in a cute way. I added a hyphen before the final C for clarity. And then I thought about chalcedony.

I didn’t think about chalcedony because of any connection with chalk (which CHELC also reminds me of, but which the waitress did not use – she used a crayon – and which is quite different from chalecedony) but just because Chelsea made me think of it, since chalcedony looks like it might be pronounced sort of like “Chelsea doney.” It also makes me think of chalice.

But chalcedony would more reasonably make me think of the French for chalice, câlice (a rude word in Quebec), or of calcium, even though chalcedony doesn’t contain calcium and it would be noteworthy to see a chalice made of it. This is because the opening ch is pronounced /k/. The second c, however, is /s/. And the preferred pronunciation has the stress on the second syllable, like “Cal said an E” (though you can also go with the flow and put stress on the first and third instead, as you probably want to anyway).

The liturgical air that chalice brings is not altogether inappropriate. As I remarked to my lunch companions, chalcedony is one of those minerals I can only recall ever having seen named in the Bible – specifically in its final book (Revelation), as one of the various precious stones of which the New Jerusalem is built: its foundations are made of twelve precious stones, to wit jasper, sapphire, chalcedony, emerald, sardonyx, carnelian, chrysolite (not chrysotile!), beryl, topaz, chrysoprase, jacinth, and amethyst.

Don’t you love that, when you’re reading something and they just mention some weird thing you’ve never heard of before as though everybody knows what it is, and in fact as though it’s one of the most important or valuable things going? Right there in between sapphire and emerald is chalcedony, and there’s also sardonyx (yeah, right!), carnelian, chrysoprase, jacinth… Not exactly as common as sand. In fact, mentioned nowhere else in the Bible.

It gets better: whatever they were calling chalcedony back then is almost certainly not what we call chalcedony now. (Latin versions of the Bible named the same stone as carbunculus or anthrax – ha, yes, ἄνθραξ anthrax is the Greek word for “carbuncle”.) But, then, although the name seems to clearly indicate that the stone is associated with Chalcedon, a town in Asia Minor (now a district of Istanbul), the OED tells us that this is actually very doubtful. It seems that earlier forms of the name had an r instead of an l, and may have been related to Carthage (Greek Καρχηδών Karkhedón) – but at any rate the name has changed stones since then.

The stone it now names is surely the one J.R.R. Tolkien had in mind. You see, one of those with whom I work, Christina Vasilevski, mentioned that she had seen it in The Lord of the Rings. And indeed it is there, in a song Bilbo Baggins sings at Rivendell about a mariner named Eärendil:

his bow was made of dragon-horn,
his arrows shorn of ebony
of silver was his habergeon,
his scabbard of chalcedony

Well, if a chalice, why not a scabbard, I suppose.  (Oh, by the way: habergeon? Hauberk: a chain-mail tunic.) But what is it, this chalcedony?

Silicon dioxide is what it is. Yup, silica. Same stuff that’s in sand. And in a whole lot of other things too. The way the molecules arrange themselves accounts for quite a lot of variety. Chalcedony is a version with a pearly lustre, and it comes in white, grey, brown, and black, and is translucent.

Oh, and it also comes in an assortment of varieties with different forms and different additions of other elements, and each with its own name: agate, aventurine, carnelian, chrysoprase, heliotrope, jasper, moss agate, mtorolite, onyx, sardonyx… Do some of those look familiar? Yes, nearly half of the foundations of the New Jerusalem are varieties of chalcedony. Which is itself a sort of silica. And silica is used everywhere in all sorts of things.

But, then, what the heck. English has so few letters and so few sounds and yet produces all these words with them…

10 responses to “chalcedony

  1. Chalcedony…chalcedony…? The scent of your tasted words make me hungry. Chalcedony… something tries to come to memory. Victorian? Browning? “The Bishop Orders his Tomb,” maybe? Nope, not among those stones. Tennyson? No again.
    Finally found it in, of all places, Lord Robert Douglas, pronounced just the way you tell us is preferred:
    “Red were his lips as red wine-spilith that dyes
    A marble floor, his brow chalcedony.”
    Had I ever read this? Clearly, yes, because phrase after phrase is familiar. The poem is an old friend, long since neglected. Thanks for bringing it back.

  2. Chalcedony falls into that great abyss of words we see, think we know, and pass on to other things, forgetting all about it until next time. It also enters the realm of words we always mispronounced because we were (a.) too lazy to look it up, (b.) too smug about our erudition, or (c.), too tired at 2 a.m. to bother. Case in point: I always undferstood “epitome,” but in my mind it had a synonym, “epi-TOME.” My epiphany came oner day when I used the latter in coversation, only to be met by an embarrassed silence from my auditors.

  3. I love the stone, have a ring set with it, and I love how the word’s pronounced. Until the internet came along with audio dictionaries, I pronounced it “Chelsea doney” as you suspected.

  4. Reading Greek mythology as a child I would pronounce the name of the Queen of the Underworld as ‘PURSY – phone’ because, of course, it looks just like telephone. I always thought it an awkward, unwieldy name until someone said ‘per SEF an nie’. But I still have to remind myself not to call her a cell in a handbag.

    • While we are on the subject of Persephone, a front door in my street has a bell push with a little window for the name of the householder. It says ‘ENTRYPHONE LONDON’. I have always imagined Entrýphonë, pronounced in four euphonious syllables, to be the name of a lovely nymph which was given to the fortunate Miss London. Sadly, it is just the name of the company that made the electrically operated door and intercom, and the woman who lives in the house has never bothered to replace the card with one bearing her own name.

    • When my niece started reading the Harry Potter books, at about age 7, she called the heroine “Hermy One.”

  5. Pingback: hauberk | Sesquiotica

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