chenocoprolite

As the Beach Boys sang (more or less), “It’s my little goose poop… you don’t know what I got!” And whatever you may think of filthy lucre (or anyway dirty dollars), thanks to their radio activity, that song surely filled their pockets with a lot of silver. Some of which may have started out as a little goose poop… or at least looked like it.

How does this ten-dollar word chenocoprolite take us to that? It’s not just that it sounds like silver coins being dropped (especially when you know that the ch is said “k”). If you know some Greek roots or some mineralogy (or some other things), you may recognize coprolite or at least the copro root, which refers to poop. But that’s not the whole scoop! Do you know what the cheno means?

I’ll drop this one on you gradually. Here’s the description from James Dwight Dana’s 1844 A System of Mineralogy:

Presents mammillary forms.

H.=2–3. Luster resinous. Streak white. Color yellow, or pale-green. Translucent. Fracture conchoidal.

Before the blowpipe, it evolves copious arsenical fumes, and fuses to a blackish scoria; when the heat is continued on charcoal, it fuses and yields a button of silver, but the slag contains metallic iron, which strongly affects the magnet. Chenocoprolite appears, therefore, to be an arsenate of silver and iron.

Obs. The principal localities of this species are in the Hartz, at the mines of Clausthal. It is also found in Cornwall, and at Allemont in Dauphiny. When abundant, it is highly valued as an ore of silver.

Chenocoprolite is a translation of the German name, which was given it in allusion to its peculiar color and general appearance.

So… OK, my dude… what is the German name?

It’s Gänseköthigerz. That’s from Erz, ‘ore’ (the German word traces back to Arretium, now called Arezzo, which was a major Etruscan ore-producing city), plus Köthig, adjectival form of Koth, an old spelling of Kot, which means ‘excrement’, plus Gänse, ‘geese’. Our good classicists saw that and thought, “Ah, χήν (khén) ‘goose’ plus κόπρος (kopros) ‘crap’, that will dignify it a bit more.”

Well, these days it seems more often to be called ganomatite when it’s called at all. I guess it’s still mined, but the dig-for-dollars days of its original sources seem behind them – the Clausthal mines closed in 1930; Allemont is now a tourist place in Val d’Isère. Another mine it was found in was at Joachimsthal, now called Jáchymov, in the Czech Republic. That mine has a couple of sources of fame. It was where the ore came from in which Marie Curie discovered radium, and the mine was until World War I the leading source of radium in the world (and a cause of much cancer among its miners). But before that, it had been known for high-quality silver. Coins made from it were esteemed and widely circulated; they were known as Joachmisthalers, or – because that’s kinda long – Thalers, pronounced like “tallers.” Eventually English said “mine!” to that word in a slightly modified form: dollars.

Yup. You could really go down into that radioactive mine and pick up a piece of greenish-yellowish ore, your little goose poop, perhaps a filthy looker but also filthy lucre, and you’d have known what you got – dollars!

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