What’s In A Name

As someone interested in names and what they mean, I am regularly intrigued by the terms used in the building stone trade.  Often the names give an insight to place of origin.  For example, we have the world famous Carrara marble, nationally known Georgia Cherokee Marble, or locally recognized Tenino Sandstone (from Tenino, Washington).  Stone names can also convey color, such as Coral Red Granite, Black Ice Marble, and Blue Pearl, or texture, Roxbury Puddingtone, Birdseye Marble, and Tapestry Granite.

Names, however, can also mislead.  Minnesota’s Rainbow granite is a 3.5-billion-year old gneiss, which happens to be the oldest commonly used building stone in the world. (Ironically, one correctly labeled class of granites, called rapakivi, gives too much information as rapakivi is the Finnish word for crumbly.)  The other commonly mislabeled rock is limestone, often called marble, even ones such as the fossil-rich Treuchtlingen marble from Germany. 

 3.5 bya Morton gneiss aka Rainbow granite

The more fascinating stones come with a story.  The island of Chios has produced portasanta, a stone often compared to roast beef in color and texture; its name translates to holy door, a reference to its use as door jambs at St. Peter’s.  From France comes another reddish rock, Cervelatte Marble, a named derived from is similarity to sausage made in Switzerland and Germany.  Cervelatte comes from the Latin cerebrum, in reference to the brains formerly used in the sausage.


One of the world’s most famous marbles is that used in the Parthenon in Athens. Roman stone cutters knew of the white marble as Marmo Greco Fetido (fetid Greek marble) and Marmo cipolla (onion marble), because “when sawn it emits a fetid odour,” wrote Mary Winearls Porter in What Rome Was Built With: A Description of the Stones Employed in Ancient Times for its Building and Decoration.  This is not an unusual phenomenon; organic remains in the rock can disintegrate and form a sulfurous gas, which gets trapped in the crystal lattice.  Breaking the stone releases the gas.  Cutting to the chase, the British labeled their odoriferous rock Stink Stone.

The Brits also have many ancient words sprinkled into their stone names. Kentish Rag utilizes a word first used in 1272 to refer to any “sedimentary rock readily broken into thick slabs as paving” or so says the OED.  The commonly used freestone also appeared at this time, compared with sandstone, which was not used until 1668. And then there’s clunch, which sounds like a stomach ailment, but actually refers to hard layers of the chalk marl in Cambridgeshire.

My favorite name, however, comes from Brazil.  I don’t know what it means but simply like the sound of Uba Tuba.  What’s your favorite stone name?

5 thoughts on “What’s In A Name”

  1. I like Larvikite (Norway), Imperial Porphry (Egypt), Rainbow Rhyolite (Japan). I like plain old Missouri Red (Granite). Our great quantities of rhyolite, used to be named Jasper, as if it were all semi-precious. Otherwise I like mysterious foundlings of obvious quality, un-named, little used or unused, having no purpose; found neither in language and nor on the map.

  2. Millstone Grit in England, is one of my favorites. It pretty well sums up what the stone was used for!

    By the way, I found your blog because I searched for "Rainbow Granite". I have found it used in the Sinclair Building (1930) in Fort Worth and the Petroleum Building (1927) in Midland, Texas. It is a spectacular stone – contorted gneissic foliation, boudinaged blocks, veins of quartz, dikes of granite, and huge feldspar crystals!

    Enjoyed your site, keep up the good work. I will try to read your book soon.

  3. Millstone Grit, in England, is one of my favorite formation names. Wonderfully descriptive.

    I found your site by searching for "Rainbow Granite". I was researching the stone because I found it in the Sinclair Building (1930) in Fort Worth, and the Petroleum Building (1927) in Midland, Texas. It is a truly spectacular stone – contorted gneissic banding, boudinaged blocks, quartz veins, a few granite dikes, and large feldspar crystals!

    Love the site. Keep up the good work. I hope to read your book soon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *