Merry mining terms to impress friends and family at parties |

Merry mining terms to impress friends and family at parties

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Three stories of timber rise above a stope at South Dakota Homestake Mine in 1908.
Library of Congress

Would you like to dazzle the crowd during an upcoming holiday cocktail party? You could throw out a few unheard-of mining terms, and reveal how clever you are.

Mining terms previously heard on the streets of Aspen have grown arcane. Many came from Cornish miners. Some terms relate only to metals, while coal mining has its own vocabulary. For instance, miners’ nystagmus, difficulty seeing in the dark, affects only coal miners who have worked underground for over 25 years.

From an antiquarian bookstore in Carson City, Nevada, I bought a dictionary of mining mineral and related terms. The title appears unassuming in lower case, as if it might sneak off the bookshelf and slide underground, where the terms may feel more comfortable. The U.S. Department of the Interior published the 1,200-page tome in 1968.

A few mineral tongue-twisters follow. You may study up on them now for use at Thanksgiving. To easily pronounce a term, first learn the end. Mineral-related words end in “ite” or “ic”. For instance, see boltwoodite, calciostrontianite, djalmaite, ezcurrite, fusovitrite, and anchimonomineralic. At the bar, “ginorite” comes in handy. Regale your cousins as you remind them no one would drink that mineral, even though the term hails from a wine region — Tuscany, Italy.

Skipping to Y and Z, practice pronouncing “yttrotantalite.” It’s easy when you realize it almost rhymes with “tantalize.” “Zeunerite” holds a special place in my bag of riddles because it has not yet been discovered! The kicker? Artificial zeunerite exists.

From an Aspen miner’s perspective, the first “A” word worth knowing, acaustobiolith refers to an incombustible sediment. If you set up a race at the dinner table to see who would be first to think of an example, give limestone only half credit. Although some kinds of that mineral would not burn, others would. Aspen endured underground fires in the Smuggler mine, although the major layer associated with the mine’s silver was Leadville limestone.

A Collins miner may have worked the Redstone coalmines. The remote-controlled machine worked very thin layers of coal, as many as 1,000 tons daily.

Fork-the-hole refers to drilling a second hole after drilling a completed one.

Galenobisutite holds local relevance due to the preponderance of the lead mineral galena. But the Colorado variety is called alaskaite, which indicates a mineralogical lack of interdisciplinary coordination. A geographer would have named it galenoAspenite.

We think of incline in regards to skiing or political leanings, but in old Aspen the noun referred to a tilted shaft. A justiceman, a Scottish term, is the person who checked the weight of mineral produced, because miners were paid by the ton.

Leacher does not refer to a dirty, old miner, but rather to the person who removes mineral with a chemical solution at the smelter.

You might think a nonpermitted explosive would be one that was sold to a minor, rather than a miner. But the mining term means an explosive that cannot be used in the presence of miners’ lamps.

No one serves pancakes for breakfast in a mine. Rather, miners stacked these 30-inch-diameter, 4-inch-high concrete cylinders inside a stope to prevent it from collapsing. Aspen’s miners provided the same protection with wood timbers. Robbing had nothing to do with banks, but threatened serious consequences. The theft involved the removal of timbering in a stope to use it somewhere else.

When Aspen’s residents used the term zincky, they weren’t talking about skunks. Instead, they referred to a specimen in hand, perhaps one just pulled from the mine, that appeared bluish silver, like … zinc.

When you try these words out at your next party, make a lasting impression. Call out, “Zwieselite!” as you wave goodbye. Your hosts might admire your historical mining vocabulary. Or they may offer you a ride home.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at