The etymology, or origin, of the word ‘luck’ is centuries old and has strong roots in minerals and mining. Although the exact origin is unknown, the verb “lukken,” meaning to “happen by chance” or “happen fortunately,” first appeared in Old English literature sometime in the mid 15th century and is thought to be associated with gambling. According to several sources, this meaning was likely borrowed from earlier Middle Dutch (“gheluc”) or Germanic (“gelücke”) speakers, who applied these words to good fortune and happiness associated with it.
Not long afterwards, beginning around the late 16th century, the traditional German miner’s greeting, “Glück auf!”, which translates to “luck to!” or “luck on!” became popular among many European miners. It describes a hope for good fortune to find ore that will bring riches, and was likely also directed to having luck in safety on their shift underground, since underground mining during that time was extremely dangerous.
The more modern term “luck of the Irish” also has likely origins in mining, since Irish immigrants and Irish American miners were considered to be some the most successful and famous prospectors during the gold and silver rush in the Western U.S. in the mid 1800s.
Miners sometimes encountered “unlucky” minerals underground that, at the time, were worthless and not considered pay dirt. Around the 1600s, silver miners in the Bohemia region of Czech Republic and Germany often encountered a dark and dense mineral that they referred to as “pechblende,” or bad-luck ore. This pechblende was actually the mineral uraninite, a major ore of the radioactive element uranium that would later become a hotly contested resource of developing nuclear nations.
Nowadays, good luck is linked to many minerals, including gold, mythical pots of which receive attention around St. Patrick’s Day. Gold is considered lucky because of its association with wealth and fortune, but did you know that the reason gold is used for money is linked to its mineralogy? Consider gold’s properties as a mineral: it’s very stable (doesn’t spontaneously burst into flames or corrode), melts at a relatively low temperature, and is easily malleable (hammered or pressed). Gold was an ideal candidate to be used as money for early civilizations. Matching all those requirements, plus being the right balance of rare, but not too rare, means that out of over 100 elements in the periodic table, gold hits the sweet spot for monetary value.
Carla Rosenfeld is the Assistant Curator of Earth Sciences, Travis Olds is Assistant Curator of Minerals, and Debra Wilson is Collection Manager of Minerals at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.
Share this post!
Carnegie Museum of Natural History Blog Citation InformationBlog author: Rosenfield, Carla; Olds, Travis; and Wilson, Debra
Publication date: March 9, 2021