Foggite, mordenite and plumboferrite are examples of the three main categories of mineral naming: people, place, or a physical characteristic of the mineral.

Foggite is named after Forrest F. Fogg, a 20th century mineral collector from New Hampshire. Along the Bay of Fundy, just east of Morden, Nova Scotia, is where mordenite was first found. Plumboferrite is from the Latin plumbum, meaning lead and ferrum for iron. These are two of the elements that make the mineral. The ending ‘ite’ is from the Greek word meaning rock or stone.

Currently the International Mineralogical Association (IMA) recognizes approximately 5,700 official mineral names. The IMA is the organization responsible for the approval of new minerals through its Commission on New Minerals, Nomenclature and Classification (CNMNC). It provides extensive guidelines for naming rather than strictly enforced rules. Every submission is assessed on an individual basis.

A mineral can only be a natural substance, not something created through human intervention. Each mineral has to have a unique chemical composition and crystal structure. Diamonds and graphite are both made of carbon, but, because of very different crystal structures, they are distinct minerals. When talking minerals, size does matter. A substance can have a distinctive chemistry and crystal form, but only be seen on a microscopic scale. Some scientists believe a true mineral has to have physical characteristics, including colour and hardness, to make it something you can hold in your hand.

When naming a mineral, the author of the submission cannot name it after themselves. If it is named after a living person, you must have their permission. Some are named after institutions, such as a university (Mcgillite for example). Names of commercial organizations with no links to mineralogy cannot be used. Names that look too close to existing ones are discouraged. The CNMNC naming guidelines sum it up “choose a simple name.”

Pyrite from the Greek ‘pyr’ for fire

Azure from the Persian ‘lazhward’ for blue

Prehnite was the first mineral named after a person. This hard-brittle mineral, first discovered in Germany, was named after Dutch Colonel Hendrick von Prehn in 1789, shortly after his death. Those minerals not named after a person frequently have either Greek, Arabic, Latin, or French origins. Azurite, an oxidized copper mineral, comes from the Persian word for blue, lazhward. Pyrite comes from the Greek ‘pyr’ for fire; it gives off sparks when struck with steel.

If a mineral does not end in ‘ite’ (think quartz, copper, or mercury), that usually means the name has been around so long the origin is unknown. Different regions have local unofficial names for certain minerals, including fool’s gold (pyrite), fairy stone (staurolite), ruby silver (pyrargyrite) and black jack (sphalerite).

The CNMNC receives an average of 80 new mineral submissions per year. The committee, made up of international mineralogists, typically approve 60 to 70 of these as new. Each submission must include the chemical formula and country that the mineral was first found. Everywhere from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe is represented. Even extra-terrestrial minerals are listed. Meteorites are a great source of new minerals. The moon is represented by armalcolite, a titanium oxide brought back by astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins of Apollo 11.

Canada has between 200 and 300 on the list, including some from the Yukon. Yukonite is a reddish brown to black, soft, brittle arsenic phosphate resulting from the weathering of arsenopyrite. It was discovered in 1913 at Venus Mine south of Carcross. In 1973, a barium phosphate, jagowerite, was identified in the Hess River area. It is named after John Arthur Gower, a UBC professor who had died shortly before the discovery.

Pellyite is a barium, iron, magnesium silicate discovered around the headwaters of the Pelly River, south of Macmillan Pass. In the Big Fish River area of northern Yukon, a sulphate mineral named rapidcreekite was identified in the 1980s. Dawsonite was not named for the Yukon location but for a Montreal find. It was discovered in 1874 and named for John William Dawson, a geologist at McGill University.

No matter what the mineral, there is usually a good story behind the name.