Daily Archives: May 1, 2012


This word caught my eye first because of its opening kj. That seems a rather hard juxtaposition, no? But it’s really a sign of a Scandinavian origin – in this case Norwegian. In fact, it represents the consonant sound heard in German ich: a voiceless alveopalatal fricative. Anglophones are more likely to say the kjer as like “care” with a “y” before the vowel (in other words, a sort of stereotypically “American” pronunciation). But as long as you’re reasonably careful, you’ll be fine.

Speaking of being reasonably careful, is it just me, or does this word seem to you, too, like a depiction of someone stumbling over a rock, almost going for a header but catching themself and carrying on? The kj stubbing the toe of the shoe, the er falling forward, the ulf catching the fall and stumbling, and the fine being, well, fine…

And what kind of rock would they be stumbling over? Perhaps a piece of kjerulfine. Yes, this is another Scandinavian mineral (see ytterbium for more). Funny – if we see a word from many a modern language showing up in English – such as Afrikaans, Greek, Italian, French, Spanish – there’s not a bad chance it’s for some food item. But so far I keep running into minerals when the words are Scandinavian.

Well, that’s fine. The other thing I get lots of from Scandinavia is rock. Not rocks as in minerals; I mean rock music. A fair amount of metal, actually. Again I mean the music. But if you think heavy metal is frightful, here’s news for you: the mineral that is called kjerulfine is actually just a variety of wagnerite.

Wagnerite! Well, that’s a name for a person who is an adherent of the music of Richard Wagner. Which is surer to take the paint off an old fridge (and scare the fridge right into the junkyard) than any folk death metal to come creeping out of Norway.

So this generally ugly rock (a sort of Alberich of minerals, a combined phosphate and fluoride of iron and magnesium, light tawny in colour) is named after the forger of the Ring?

Whew. No. It’s named after F.M. von Wagner, a mining official from 19th-century Germany. (Those Valkyries were harrowingly close there.)

But wait. What about Kjerulf? If we have kjerulfine, there must be a kjerulf. Who was he?

Theodor Kjerulf, a 19th-century professor of mineralogy. He also has a glacier named after him way down on South Georgia (near Antarctica). But of course this rock has such a dual and misleadingly musical nature, wouldn’t it be nice if there were a composer named Kjerulf?

Which of course there is: Halfdan Kjerulf. He was born 10 years before Theodor and died 20 years before him, and they both lived in Oslo (at the time called Christiania). I don’t know if they were close relatives. He put effort into cultivating classical music in Norway (he introduced the public there to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony), and was much admired by Edvard Grieg. Here, here’s a lovely little piece of his called “Spring Song,” which you can listen to while looking at pictures of rocks and glaciers: www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHZAtQdxjmg. I think it has a certain lapidary quality.