I knew that the word magnet was ultimately from Greek Magnētis (lithos) ‘Magnesian (stone),’ which the AHD says is “from Magnēsiā Magnesia, an ancient city of Asia Minor.” Merriam-Webster’s concurs: “stone of Magnesia, ancient city in Asia Minor.” But my problem, as I looked at my map of Asia Minor, was that there were two Magnesias: Magnesia ad Maeandrum (‘on the Meander River’), now in ruins, and Magnesia ad Sipylum (‘at the foot of Mt. Sipylus’) or ad Hermum (‘on the Hermus River’), now buried beneath the Turkish city of Manisa (whose name obviously derives from it). So I did some googling to try to find out which Magnesia we were talking about, and what did I find but my old friend, the Elementymology & Elements Multidict by Peter van der Krogt, whose magnesium entry says:

The names magnesia alba and magnesia nigra are derived from Magnesia, Μαγνησια, a prefecture in Thessaly (Greece)… Manganese and Magnesium were abundant in oxide and carbonate ores in this region, and they therefore became referred as Μαγνητις λιθος, or stones from Magnesia. The region also contained large amounts of iron oxides (magnetite, or lodestone, for example) so that the ores were magnetized. That explains why magnesium as well as magnet (and magnetism) are derived from Magnesia, while magnesium is not magnetic.

(Emphasis added.) He certainly sounds like he knows what he’s talking about… but could my two favorite American dictionaries both get it wrong? The OED records an ancient dispute and takes no sides:

The origin of the Greek terms is uncertain, and was disputed in antiquity. They may refer to an origin in the district of Magnesia in the east of Thessaly (cf. MAGNESIAN n. and a.1), or in the territory of the city Magnesia ad Sipylum in Lydia; on the other hand, Pliny (Nat. Hist. 20. 2; 36. 126-7) cites Nicander as his authority for the derivation from the name of a shepherd, Magnes, who found that the ground on Mount Ida attracted the iron nails in his shoes and the ferrule of his staff.

Does anybody know if this can be pinned down once and for all?

Update (Dec. 28, 2011). The new Fifth Edition of the AHD has added Thessaly as a possibility: “after Magnēsiā, a region of Thessaly, or Magnēsiā, a city in ancient Lydia.” Good for them!


  1. Jimmy Ho says

    In this article about etymology (first published in To Vima, now hosted on the Lexicology Centre’s website), Babiniotis (supervisor of the reference dictionary for modern Greek) happens to take μαγνήτης as an example:
    Έτσι λ.χ. η αρχαία και νέα ελληνική λ. μαγνήτης δεν έχει καμία σχέση με τις ιδιότητες ή τα χαρακτηριστικά τού μαγνήτη, αλλά προήλθε από το αρχ. (η) Μαγνήτις λίθος, που ονομάστηκε έτσι από το Μάγνης/ Mάγνητες, ονομασία αρχαίων Ελλήνων Μακεδόνων που εγκαταστάθηκαν (τον 12ο αι. π.Χ.) στη Μαγνησία, η οποία και πήρε το όνομά τους.
    So for him it comes undoubtedly from the Thessalian region founded by Greeks from Macedonia who settled there around the 12th century B.C.
    For what it’s worth, my copy of “the” Babiniotis does mention the place in Asia Minor.

  2. I disagree that “for him it comes undoubtedly from the Thessalian region” — I read him as saying that the stone was named for the (name of the) tribe/group of (Macedonian) Greeks that settled the region known as Magnesia, which would be true even if the immediate source of the mineral were one of the cities in Asia Minor (which were named after the settlers from Thracian Magnesia).

  3. Only slightly off-topic, the word “copper” comes from “Cyprus”. The Greek word for copper was “aes”, but Cyprus was so important in the copper trade that the phrase “aes Cyprium” (copper of Cyprus) became common in Latin, later to be shortened to “Cyprium” and then “cuprum”.

  4. Jimmy Ho says

    I was certainly hasty (for a Greek, “Magnesia” as a current name refers first of all to the nomos of Thessalia whose “capital” is Volos), since Babiniotis discusses the origin of the word but is not interested into that of the stone itself (he starts by saying that the modern word “has no relation at all to the properties or characteristics of magnet”).
    Liddell and Scott do no solve the uncertainty (they define Μάγνης as inhabitant of either the region in Thessalia or the one in Lydia), but they give a reasonable number of references for Μαγνήτις λίθος that could be helpful, if only one had enough time to check them all (that’s in my old katharevoussa edition; I am not sure if there is anything more in the Supplement).

  5. language hat, your site has got to be one of the most interesting on the web. but how in the world can you deal with so many languages? it’s over the top. on the other hand, if i’d had a clue that i could have ‘grown up’ to be a linguist, i might have stayed with my first-love, etymology. this is, no doubt, a mere midlife maundering. at the time, I was seen as just too weird for words. i never took the possibility of a ‘career’in etymology seriously until finding your site. hats off to language hat!

  6. Why, thank you, madam! But I have to disillusion you: I don’t have a career in etymology any more than you do. I make my living (such as it is) as an editor; etymology and linguistics are a sideline, bringing in much knowledge and good fellowship (here in Blogovia) but, I fear, no cash. I could have made a career as a linguist only at the price of putting up with academia and teaching, which for me was a price too high to pay, though others have no problem with it.

  7. Jimmy: A couple of the references can be checked directly from the online entry, but it certainly would be convenient to have them all in one place. I don’t know if they would settle this issue, though. I guess when I was a kid and first encountered this etymology, I assumed there was a place called Magnesia where, I dunno, they found magnets lying around or the rocks stuck to each other or something; little did I know there were three Magnesias and nobody seems to know which one is responsible for the name.

  8. David Quidnunc says

    Sorry, I can’t help with the etymology, but here are some other suggestions offered in the spirit of helpfulness:
    Surefire way to settle which Magnesium has the greater claim — find out which has the magnetic rocks today. If you can dig up a geologist who knows Turkey you might not have to dig the hard way. (Just don’t let ’em tell you its nobody’s business but the Turks.) Actually, it sounds like a good, relatively easy experiment for amateur archeologists. I can see the Discovery Channel show now … “Search for the Mysterious Magnet City.” Hey, National Geographic might even sponsor a dig.
    Or a TV reality show! “Magnesia Opus.” Think of it — two groups of amateur geologists set out to find the more magnetic spot. Audience members yelling, “Atta Turk!” Sponsored by Philips Milk of Magnesia and the Turkish Tourism Authority (“You’ll find Magnesia as attractive as the Ancient Greeks did …”). Think of all the refrigerator magnets they’ll sell at the tourist traps!
    What I find just as interesting is that you mention a river called “Meander” (so does it meander much?). And where did the name “Milk of Magnesia” come from?
    Oh, never mind. Just Googled it myself. From
    “common name for the chemical compound magnesium hydroxide, Mg(OH) 2 . The viscous, white, mildly alkaline mixture that is used medicinally as an antacid and laxative is a suspension of approximately 8% magnesium hydroxide in water.”

  9. Since you’ve answered your second question, I have only to deal with the first: yes, the Maeander (today the Menderes) does meander, and yes, that’s where the word came from.

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