Microbes and Minerals
Microbes and Minerals
Pyrite consists of two elements—iron and sulfur—but considerations of pyrite formation have mainly concerned sulfur. Iron is extremely abundant in the Earth; in fact, it is the fourth most abundant element on Earth and is less localized in its distribution. By contrast, sulfur is the 17th most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, and there are about 100 times more iron than sulfur. The interest in the primary role of sulfur in pyrite formation continues to the present day. In the Old Latin of early Republican Rome (i.e., before c. 200 BCE), sulfur was called sulpur or burning stone (i.e., brimstone). The p was pronounced with a puff of air. This puff was transliterated with an h following the p. When the f sound was introduced into classical Latin, p was often changed to ph in Latin words of Greek origin. Sulpur, however, had no Greek roots. The Greeks called it θε??? (thion), which gave rise to our prefix, thio-. Sulfur had been written as sulphur in Old Latin, with the h indicating the puff of air after the p, but when the f sound was introduced this gave the mistaken impression that sulphur was originally a Greek word. At the end of classical times (around 27 BCE) the spelling was altered to sulfur, which is the spelling that usually appears in Latin dictionaries. In the last millennium, the element has traditionally been spelled sulphur in the United Kingdom and countries where UK rule held sway. By contrast, US English has continually used the correct sulfur spelling. The fountainhead of all chemical definitions worldwide, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, adopted the spelling sulfur in 1990. Finally, the UK authorities admitted their error and the UK Royal Society of Chemistry Nomenclature Committee recommended the correct spelling in 1992. In 2000 the authority determining quality and standards in UK schools decreed UK children should be taught the sulfur spelling. The sulphur spelling still occurs, but at best this is a literary affectation.
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