Lost in Translation: The Linguistic Hodgepodge of Mg4Si6O15(OH)2·6H2O

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by Ben Rapaport, August 1, 2012

Neither a major industrial mineral nor a precious stone, meerschaum still retains a record of a long—and continuing—association with art and the personal affairs of man. It’s about time for an in-depth, investigative treatise on it and écume de mer, two words that have been intertwined, confounded, and misunderstood for about 200 years. Here’s one reason why. A hundred or so years ago, one would have read: “There are some smokers who, because the English equivalent of the word, meerschaum, is seafoam, imagine that the light and delicate material of which their pipes are made is the froth cast by waves upon chalky coasts, which has become solidified by some process of nature” (“Mineral Treasures of the Earth,” The Search-Light, March 31, 1906, 205). A hundred years later, when Tinder Box posts the following online, I have to wonder where a newbie pipe smoker gets his meerschaum smarts: “The mineral itself is the fossilized shells of tiny sea creatures that fell to the ocean floor over 50 million years ago, there to be covered and compressed over the ages by layer upon layer of silt” (“The Story of Your Meerschaum Pipe,” http://www.tinderboxinternational.com/meerschaum.htm).

In 1880, this observation was made:

The German word for Seafoam is Meerschaum, and the word Meerschaum was applied to what is now a famous substance, from the belief that this substance was a product of the sea—was a kind of hardened foam. This belief, which was soon proved to be a myth, had a charm just like that other myth which represented Venus as springing from the foam of the sea, an origin that procured for her the name of Anadyomene. [Venus is mentioned later in this essay.] Yet in regard to meerschaum much still remains mythical. Rash statements are made; conflicting and confusing statistics perplex us; and we have to seize the truth, and often dubious truth, from the grudging depths of a chaos of possibilities...No kind of history is so apocryphal, so swarms with fictions, as anecdotal history. It is too often either puerile gossip or gross exaggeration (“Meerschaum,” Cope’s Tobacco Plant, No. 124.—Vol. II, July, 1880, 495).

How true! It’s easy to explain why this mineral received the appellations meerschaum and écume de mer: its resemblance to sea foam, its whiteness, more so its specific gravity (most stones float, but some do sink). “The few chemists who are not smokers have had the temerity to name this mineral Sepiolite, but they are only postponing their day of smoking. The word meerschaum means sea foam, and the mineral was so named because it was first found floating as sea foam on the coasts of Turkey, where the surf washed it into the sea” (Frederick H. Smith, Revised Pocket Geologist, and Mineralogist, 1890, 154–155). “The origin of the term ‘meerschaum’ is somewhat obscure. It need hardly be said that ‘the foam of the sea’ has no part in the composition of the substance; but it is possible that this appellation was given to it from the fact, as already stated, that the lighter kind will float on water” (Anon., Tobacco Whiffs for the Smoking Carriage, 1874, 26). Of course, so many opinions about meerschaum were based “...on the belief of the workmen engaged in digging the mineral, that it grows again in the fissures of the rock, and that it puffs itself up like froth” (Dr. L. Feuchtwanger, A Popular Treatise on Gems, 1859, 358).

It’s tough enough for a historian to wrap his arms around the mystery—or myth—of when, how and who started using this white, pliable mineral to make tobacco pipes. The experts at the National Museum of Hungary, Budapest—and many others— have pretty much booted that Hungarian Karl Kovàcs off his cobbler’s bench, who, in popular lore, supposedly crafted the first meerschaum pipe (or pipes). Perhaps the earliest protest comes from my old reliable Cope’s Tobacco Plant: “There is a story that early in the last century a cobbler at Pesth was the accidental inventor of meerschaum pipes, or, at least, of that particular mode of colouring them which has such fascination for many smokers. But a moment’s consideration must show that the story is wholly absurd, wholly lacks historical credibility (“Meerschaum,” 495).

Following the trail of Kovàcs is arduous enough...harder still is charting the origin of the ubiquitous word meerschaum, its assorted spellings, and all its surrogates. As everyone knows, it has no English equivalent...it’s adopted from German. “Our debt to German is surprisingly small. Except those German words which have come to us through French, which are not very numerous, there appear to be only twenty-eight in all, and of these only camellia...meerschaum, in common use” (A. C. Champneys, History of English, 1893, 364). But the debut of this word and other descriptors for this mineral is more complicated, and not so easily explained as this: “The word meerschaum, meaning in German ‘sea-foam,’ has been translated by the French into écume de mer; and English-speaking people, so famous for spelling and spelling reform, have, in accordance with usual custom, adopted the German spelling but not the German (correct) pronunciation” (“Meerschaum in New Mexico,” Century Path Weekly Illustrated, Volume XII, No. 8, December 28, 1908, 7). The more I mined, the more I dug, the more the findings have less historical clarity, more ambiguity and conflict. Tracing their origin, tracking how these words evolved is akin to unraveling the (tobacco) Tower of Babel.

No doubt, the reader is relatively familiar with the two aforementioned words, but how about kummer, and myrsen? They’re related. And to add complexity, I offer two other terms, keffekil (with alternate spellings) and lületaşi, both used interchangeably for this substance. How did these six words come about, who laid claim to their first use, and do they mean the same thing? Some 150 years later, this is my (unsuccessful) attempt to resolve the age-old puzzlement about the origin of these words and to challenge the conventional wisdom. Whether meerschaum pipe smoker or meerschaum pipe collector, in Brewski-speak, “this one’s for you!”


Just briefly, as to its earliest possible use, “...meerschaum mining was started over 2,000 years ago by the early Greeks, who used the product for purposes now unknown” (Raymond B. Ladoo and William Marsh Myers, Nonmetallic Minerals, 1951, 311). It is said that the Romans knew this mineral and called it coral stone. History also tells that Jan (John III) Sobieski led the combined forces of Polish, German and Austrian troops at the Battle of Vienna in 1683 defending against the Turkish siege of that city. There is anecdotal evidence that he and his troops had seen many assorted objects and utensils crafted from a previously unknown white clay. Walker asserts “...on their retreat from the siege of Vienna in 1683 the Turks left behind in their camp quantities of meerschaum which were used to start a meerschaum pipe industry in Vienna” (Iain C. Walker, Clay Tobacco Pipes, With Particular Reference to the Bristol Industry, 1977, 54). And here’s a comment from the Internet: “The meerschaum pipes and Oriental amulets date back to the 1683 siege of Vienna by Turkish troops” (http://www.kynzvart.cz/en/histo.html). When, chronologically, was the word meerschaum first seen in print?

The earliest reference to meerschaum in written sources is found in a travel book, written in the XII century. When Eskisehir was a ‘frontier principality’ and a trade centre under the domination of the Turks, ‘Al-Haravi’ an Arabic traveller, visited the city in 1173, and wrote about Eskisehir in his travel book. He mentions the healing thermal waters and meerschaum; however, he does not give any information about who used meerschaum or for what purpose (http://www.eskisehirkulturturizm.gov.tr/dosya/1-280693/h/luletasien.pdf).

A certain Al-Haravî did visit a minor principality of Eskişehir, Sultanyuki, in the 1170s, but it’s uncanny that an Arabic traveler would use this German word in the 12th century. The next mention supposedly occurred some 350 years later. A certain T. Dekker wrote:

I am told, highly esteem those tobacco-pipes which they manufacture of a species of earth, of the magnesious genus combined with silex, denominated meerschaum; the spuma maris, ecume de mer, and keffekill of mineralogists: its native hue is a yellowish white, it is soapy to the touch, and readily hardens in the fire...A meerschaum pipe nearly black with smoking is considered a treasure, and has sometimes cost to the amount of fifty guineas (The Gull's Hornbook [1609], reprint, 1812, 176).

According to Michael Herdick, meerschaum appeared in a German dictionary for the first time in 1475, and then again in 1732 in Zedlers Universallexikon, but it was defined as a raw material, not as a medium for tobacco pipes (“Vom Mineral zum Prestigeobjekt. Überlegungen zur Fertigung und kulturhistorischen Bedeutung der Meerschaum- und Magnesitschnallen,” 2000, 333). And according to A. Alvarez:

Sepiolite is known since a long time. As early as 1758, Cronsted [Alex Fredrik Cronsted, Swedish mineralogist] described Keffekil Tartarorum, a mineral which may very well have been sepiolite. Later in 1794 Kirwan [Richard Kirwan, author of Earths and Stones] referred to sepiolite as Myrsen and [which, supposedly, the Germans corruptly called] Meerschaum, and in 1801, Hally [sic, R. J. Hauy] called it Écume de Mer (“Sepiolite: Properties and Uses,” in A. Singer and E. Galan [eds.], Developments in Sedimentology, 1984, 253).

Others have argued that in 1847, a German professor of mineralogy, Ernst Friedrich Glocker first used the name “sepiolite” for meerschaum. (Sepiolite’s origin is from the Greek word sepia meaning cuttlefish. Some charge that the Germans translated the Persian phrase kef-i-daryd, which described the frothy white clay known technically as sepiolite; it and meerschaum have long been considered synonyms.)

So, with all these claims and counterclaims, let me try to explain these assorted confabulations.


Alternative descriptors for meerschaum from assorted sources are cuttlefish, sepiolite, hydrous silicate of magnesia, magnesite, kreidemassen (German), fuller’s earth, Turkish earth, lületaşi (Turkish), keffekil/kefftil/kilkeffi (allegedly a Tatar word modified by the Turks), myrsen (of questionable origin), and poetic terms, such as white gold, curly stone, sea foam, sea froth, scum of the sea, and sea surf. And the words Spiegel [mirror] Meerschaum? Supposedly, it’s a special class, “looking-glass” meerschaum, because of its beautiful luster when it colors. Most agree that “mere sham” is a play on words, a sham pipe made of mere clay, a reference to the artificial or mock stuff, or as one claimed: “It appears not to be real meerschaum that has been discovered at Simla...It is a new material, exactly resembling meerschaum in appearance, and quite as valuable a material for pipes. On analysis, it appears to be essentially a silicate of alumina, and it is proposed consequently to name it meerschaluminate!” (“Miscellaneous,” Allen’s Indian Mail and Official Gazette, September 1, 1869, 825). This word is not in any dictionary I own!

Ernst Voges, compiler and editor of Tobacco Encyclopedia (1984), claims “The name meerschaum is not derived, as first appearances and the French name ‘écume de mer’ would suggest, from the German for ‘sea foam’ but instead from the lingua franca (the Levantine trading language) name, mertschavon. The Turkish name is luletashi (‘pipe stone’)” (200). Interesting explanation, but I’ve not found anything to corroborate his assertion. And where might have Herr Voges gleaned this? According to Webster’s online dictionary: “Meerschaum is a soft white mineral sometimes found floating on the Black Sea, and rather suggestive of sea-foam (German: Meerschaum), whence also the French name for the same substance, écume de mer. This is a false etymology however; the name actually deriving from the term mertscavon used by Levantine traders.” A lengthy treatise on meerschaum by Walter Morgenroth appeared in Knasterkopf, Heft 12/1999 (“Meerumwoben—schaumgeboren...Das Ende einer Sage. Zur Herstellung der Meerschaumpfeifen im 17. und 18. Jahrhundert”). In brief, his theory is that koralle (coral) is “mercan” in Turkish, and the porous-like meerschaum would probably have been called “mercan”-Stein (stone), perhaps pronounced as “merdschan,” resulting in the German word, meerschaum. This is also an interesting theory, but it’s a bit of an intellectual reach.

These explications, notwithstanding, are about meerschaum writ large, and leave out many granular and complex details, so I want to add some fantasy to this matrix of historical meerschaum mix-ups. If one compares written and oral language, maybe that’s how all that follows became so muddled, so tangled, so convoluted. Let the storytelling begin! Embrace the chaotic account that follows... and I hope that you like surprises!


Truth be told, it’s no longer about demystifying Kovàcs. It’s about Monsieur or Herr (no first name) Kummer (with alternate spellings of Krummer and Crummer) or, maybe, something called kummer, krummer and crummer. Sorting this out, however, is a yet holier grail. Frankly, after doing my homework, the Kummer story is more like who was Kilroy than who was Kovàcs. Some 150 years ago, these assorted spellings were in print in various primary and secondary sources; a century and half later, nary a mention in any pipe book. Fair warning: the majority of sources from which the remainder of this narrative is weaved are, principally, French and German, and rather than bore the reader with lengthy foreign sentences, they have been translated into English—with a little help from my friends—literally and loosely. Also note the very early years of publication of some of these references: they were from a timeframe of the supposed debut of that Kovàcs meerschaum pipe, proving that familiarity with the mineral and its uses were known to the Western world in the first quarter of the 19th century.

According to Arthur Mangin: “Its [meerschaum] whiteness, its lightness, its fineness of grain, and its porousness have procured it the poetical designation of meerschaum, or écume de mer; and this latter designation is not, as a fanciful writer some thirty years ago supposed it to be, a mere corruption of Krummer, or Kummer, the name of an ideal personage to whom the said writer was pleased to attribute the invention of meerschaum pipes” (Earth and Its Treasures: A Description of the Metallic and Mineral Wealth of Nature, 1875, 156–157). Hmmm, I thought that the invention of meerschaum pipes was the singular contribution of Kovàcs.

KUMMER: ‘HE’ OR ‘IT’? The clay pipe researcher, Walker, had this to say:

The earliest rival of the clay pipe was the meerschaum pipe. The origin of the use of this material in pipemaking is obscure, and the traditional story about this event appears to be fictitious....This story claimed according to Hendrickx by some etymologists, is that a Frenchman, Kummer, first made pipes of the material and that from this the French term for the material, écume de mer (literally, ‘sea-foam’, for which Meerschaum is the German translation) was derived. Herment (1952: 42, 1965 ed) notes this explanation is still current, but correctly observes it is erroneous. In fact, as stated above, the term écume de mer is a translation of the German Meerschaum, and that term in turn is a translation of the Persian kef-i-darya, sea-foam (so OED)...(Clay Tobacco Pipes...op. cit., 53–54).

Walker also charged that a certain Eugène Vivier:

...asserted that while Kummer had indeed made pipes of ‘une certaine matière’ it had been erroneously supposed that he had used a play of words on his name to make it appear his pipes were of meerschaum. Unfortunately, who Kummer was, where he worked, and what the ‘certain material’ was with which he made pipes is not stated. The only hint to the last point is that it was a less valuable material than meerschaum; one suspects it may simply have been superior-quality clay (Clay Tobacco Pipes...op. cit., 53–54).

Are you with me so far? Then, “For a while this écume de mer was thought to be, not a natural substance, but a manufactured paste, the invention of one Kummer. Of him it was held to be eponymic. Kummer probably did not discourage this idea” (“The Centenary of the Meerschaum,” New York Daily Tribune, April 18, 1897, 5). So Kummer was an inventor or a pipe-maker...or affiliated somehow with the raw material.

Mangin and Walker indicated that Kummer was a Frenchman. If he was, what did the French write about him? Word traveled slowly then, but as this story demonstrates, the ‘word’ continually changed...and quite often. In Rozan’s manuscript:

It is widely agreed that the pipes were called this way as a corruption of the name Kummer, who was their inventor. No one knew who he was or his name and as a result no one knew the expression ‘pipes de Kummer,’ and in order to make sense of it, one would have said, relying exclusively on the sound of it, ‘pipes d’écume de mer.’ We used to believe that Mr. Kummer was a fictional character; however a retired staff officer was kind enough to inform us that he knew very well of a pipe manufacturer by this name in Strasburg. It is therefore a singular coincidence that on the subject of pipes the proper noun Kummer and the expression écume de mer should rhyme (Charles Rozan, Petites Ignorances de la Conversation, 1887, 68-69).

Okay now he was a pipe-maker in Strasburg [sic]. Not just any pipe maker, mind you, because Kummer was “...un fabricant qui a été le Stradivarius des pipes,” asserted Honoré de Balzac (Les Journalistes. Monographie de la Presse Parisienne, 2002, 86). “This explanation is worthy of the scientist who discovered that one should say ‘a Kummer pipe,’ manufacturer par excellence on the banks of the Blue Danube, as if it were not the emphatic and empirical name of bi-silicate of magnesium” (Pierre-Charles Laurent de Villedeuil, Bibliographie des Chemins de Fer, 1906, 484). Now Kummer is making pipes somewhere along the Danube, but the Danube doesn’t flow through France! (Later, I reveal that at least one person believed that Kummer was German, not French.)

More Kummer-ations. “But what can be said of the unfortunate Kummer who invents the pipe model, the spongy pipe and who dies with the awareness of his contribution and immortality, only to see the grammatical corruption affect his name and change the Kummer pipe into pipe d’écume de mer?” (“Pipes en «Cummer,» en «écume de mer,» et pipes de «Kummer»,” L’Intermédiare des Chercheurs et Curieux, Vol. 6, Numéros 134-135, 10 août 1870–25 déc. 1873, 464). Now we’re getting somewhere. The expression, d’écume de mer, is, evidently, a corruption of his last name.

Then this:

Regardless of one’s point of view, there can hardly be any doubt, and to answer the question raised by M.J. Rècle, I think that a purist should say ‘magnesite pipes’; as for us, we will have to stick to our meerschaum pipes, and that no one should ever talk about Kummer pipes, or pipes made of Cummer, unless one wants to use this name for the deplorable product of modern industry called fausse [false] écume, one that any true smoker would avoid like the cigars from Italy…That there might have existed, as some people claim, a pipe manufacturer named Kummer, and that in the trade, one would have named his products after his name, is a possibility (although not proven), but that is not the issue. What matters is to know whether the colloquial phrase, pipe en écume de mer, can be justified” (L’Intermédiare des Chercheurs et Curieux,..., 466).

Wait! “Those that are called meerschaum are a misnomer, according to some: one should say Kummer pipes, after the name of its inventor. Kummer, indeed, made pipes from a certain material, and the mistake arises from his abusing the play on words his name gave rise to, in order to let people believe that they were made out of meerschaum, a more precious material than the one he used” (“Histoire de la Pipe: Kummer et l’Écume de Mer,” in Édouard Fournier, Le Vieux-Neuf, Tome Deuxième, 1877, 265). So that’s another interpretation: Kummer he did not use “fausse écume,” but something else, a “certain material.” This is maddening.

Add another opinion: “The name Kummer or Cummer can be used here, assuming that this was the name of the first manufacturer of fake meerschaum (my italics)...As a result of this incorrect naming a major misunderstanding has arisen. For, if the smoker, to acquire a real meerschaum, insists on using the name Kummer, he is most likely not going to receive what he desired” (Duc, Du Role de la Pipe en Écume de Mer dans Humanité, 1866, 29). “Meerschaum. Turkey produces in large quantities silicate of magnesium, a whitish and porous compound used primarily for the quality and variety of its applications, to the point that the Kummer pipes became over time, and with the help of a mangled pronunciation, meerschaum pipes” (http://mapage.noos.fr/turquieaimee/rubriqueabrac.htm). So...Kummer is manufacturing fake meerschaum pipes. Could that be the aforementioned “certain material”?

“Porcelains and highly prized pipes are made from this material, whose inventor was called Kummer. In colloquial language, this name was mixed up with the silicate that makes up these pipes, and one says improperly pipes d’écume de mer, instead of Kummer pipes” (M. W. Duckett, Dictionaire de Conversation a l’Usage des Dames et des Jeunes Personnes...Tome Quatrième, 1844, 316). “[A] variety of other natural and manufactured products, among which one can note the product commonly called écume de mer or rather kummer, used to manufacture pipes it is called in Turkish Lulè tache” (Coup d’Oeil Général sur lExposition Nationale à Constantinople, 1863, 54).

“Vienna made a specialty of this kind of pipe made from magnesite also called meerschaum, the manufacturer of pipes by the name of Kummer wanted to exploit this consonance and pretend to be the sole manufacturer of this kind of pipe” (Hippolyte Gautier et Adrien Desprez, Les Curiosités de l’Exposition de 1878, 1878,109)... Meerschaum, that many obstinately call Kummer, after the name of a manufacturer who never existed, provides the principal compound...”(C. Delvaille, Notes d’Un Visiteur sur l’Exposition Universelle de 1878, 1879, 104).

I know that I am beating a dead equine, but stay with me. According to both the preceding and the following, Kummer was an invented person. “Meerschaum pipe. Should one say: meerschaum pipe or Kummer pipe? Supporters of the second version claim that such pipes were invented by someone named Kummer who gave them his name. And if you tell them that no one has ever heard of this Kummer, that it is a character invented for the purpose, they will respond that it is absurd to pretend that one can make pipes from the foam of the sea…P.S. Kummer or Cummer is a character invented by Alphonse Karr” (Dictionnaire des curieux [1880], http://www.dicoperso.com/term/adaeaea5acaca956,,xhtml). (Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr was a 19th century French critic, journalist, and novelist.)

It’s resolved. Kummer is a substance, not a person. But is the substance real meerschaum, false meerschaum, fake meerschaum, a paste, or clay? “MAGNÉSITE. Someone, surprised by the expression meerschaum and noting that the sea does not create such foam, invented a manufacturer by the name of Kummer; according to which one would say meerschaum pipe for Kummer pipe; but nothing appears to prove the existence of this Kummer character...” (B. Legoarant, Nouveau Dictionnaire de Langue Française, 1858, 368). “PIPE DE KUMMER. An expression from which, by corrupted pronunciation, Meerschaum Pipe. The Kummer pipes are made from a kind of clay from Briançon and are named after their inventor Kummer…As far as Kummer pipe, it must be the corrupted expression” (Nouveau Dictionnaire..., 446).

It’s already apparent—at least to me—that among all these Frenchmen and others, there was little agreement as to who or what Kummer was or if Kummer existed. Many more citations could have been included, but to what end?


Here’s a Frenchman confiding that Kummer is a German, but imaginary nonetheless: “I think I remember having read in Guêpes an article in which M. Alphonse Karr contested the characterization of meerschaum pipe given to a certain quality of pipes, and asked that they be called Kummer, after the German name of the inventor. This M. Kummer is simply an imaginary character...” (Édouard Gorges, Revue de Exposition Universelle, 1855, 221). (Karr started Les Guêpes, a monthly journal, and author of that popular phrase, “the more things change the more they remain the same.”) Well, let’s look to Germany for better, more precise answers. “Our word Meerschaum has been literally accepted and in use by the English even though it is an adaptation of the Tatar word Myrsen by which name it is known in the area of Kilschik, where the major deposits of the material are found. The French translate the word Meerschaum as Écume de mer describing a meerschaum pipe bowl as a ‘pipe de Cummer’ by assuming it to mean the name of the inventor Cummer” (Rudolf Kleinpaul, Das Leben der Sprache und ihre Weltstellung, Dritter Band, 1893, 336). “It was, at that time, believed that the material was not a natural product, but that it was the product of an artificial mixture, invented by a certain trader named Kummer. The mixture came to France, where it was known as le “Kummer,” and soon the origin of the name was forgotten; it was known now as “l’écume mer,” and to make it grammatically correct slipped in a ‘de,’ so that veritable “écume de mer” became the generally used word of description. And, of course, it wandered back to Germany as a direct translation to “meerschaum” (Hermann Pilz, Ueber den Tabak und das Rauchen, 1899, 195).

“Strange is the expression of pipes of d’écume de mer as meerschaum pipes. Should it be seen as an allusion to the similarity that exists between the clay used to produce meerschaum pipes and the foam of the sea? Another view leans toward the expression used in association with a Strasbourg manufacturer of meerschaum pipes named Kummer; his pipes were known as ‘Kummer pipes.’ At a later date, when the original name was long forgotten, the name of ‘pipe d’écume de mer’ was generally accepted as descriptive of that type of pipe” (Dr. Karl Bergmann, Die Sprachliche Anschauung und Ausdrucksweise der Franzosen, 1906, 113). And it seems that in Germany, Kummer can’t die, because this statement is only two decades old: “On the other hand...meerschaum was a direct translation from French and takes a folkloric reinterpretation of the French name ‘pipe de Kummer,’ a name of a manufacturer of pipes to the generally accepted name of ‘d‘écume de mer,’ sea foam” (Jamshid Ibrahim, Kulturgeschichtliche Wortforschung, 1991, 282).


Isaac Goldberg explains it all so easily. “Meerschaum originates in France as Kummer’s pipe: that is, pipe de Kummer. The popular ear, however, makes a false division of the sounds, and transforms them into pipe d’écume de mer; which is to say, ‘a pipe of sea-foam.’ Now the name of Kummer, and his pipe came originally from Germany. The Germans forgot this; they translate écume de mer as Meerschaum, and such the term remains henceforth in both German and French!” (The Wonder of Words, 1957, 282). Additionally: “Amusing examples are the transformation of pipe de Kummer (Kummer being the manufacturer) into pipe d’écume der mer (whence Meerschaum in German)...” (Joseph. Vendryes, Language: A Linguistic Introduction to History, 1925, 181). More evidence about Kummer comes from far-away New Zealand: “The earth in question is called by mineralogists ‘silicate of magnesia.’ That is, therefore, its scientific name, and not Kummer or Cummer of Vienna, who is sometimes erroneously declared to be the inventor of the new kind of pipe” (“What is Meerschaum,” Wellington Independent, Volume XIX, Issue 2174, March 2, 1865, 3), and “A learned man declares that we are grievously in error who talk of ‘meerschaum’ pipes; we should say ‘Kummer’ pipes, and commemorate perpetually our obligations to the discoverer of a compound which has nothing to do with the sea nor with its foam” (“Opinions of Smoking,” Auckland Star, Volume VII, Issue 2054, September 1876, 6).

Alphonse Mariette reports:

Pipe d’écume de mer. According to the Academy, écume de mer is the name of a white oily magnesian clay with which the Eastern people make smoking pipes. But whence this expression? It is plain enough that no pipe can be made with the foam of the sea. One might perhaps connect these words with a mere allusion to a certain likeness between the said clay and the froth of a stormy sea. The more plausible explanation, however, of this strange term is a surmise that pipes of this kind were first introduced by a certain M. Kummer, and through a corruption not at all uncommon in popular phraseology, des pipes de Kummer became des pipes d’écume de mer. That legendary M. Kummer was a German; but then, what connection could there be between the name of this more or less authentic personage and the word ‘meerschaum,’ the literal German equivalent of écume de mer? (French and English Idioms and Proverbs, Vol. II, 1896, 117).

“At first it was thought that the substance was a paste, invented by a merchant named Cummer, and the learned of the period took advantage of their erudition to make fun of the ignorant who called it meerschaum or écume de mer, instead of cummer, an unpardonable barbarism, in their opinion” (“As to Meerschaum Pipes,” Seen and Heard, Vol. II, No. 21, May 21, 1902, 659).

This anonymous writer seems to have a handle on it, labeling it folk etymology:

Apparently these pipes were made by a person or company called Kummer. It was a Kummer pipe, in German a ‘Kummer-pfeife’ in French a ‘pipe de Kummer”. The folk etymology happened in the French version, then spread wildly back to German, then English. French speakers didn’t recognize what they were saying in ‘pipe de Kummer’, and it developed into ‘pipe d’ècume de mer’. Say both versions out loud and you’ll hear the difference more readily than reading it. Ècume is foam and ècume de mer is seafoam. This change in French was retranslated back into German as Meerschaum, and so it remained (“Reflections of a Travelanguist,” http://www.travelanguist.com/Reflections.php?Year=2004&MusNo=1.00).

Finally, “The Germans translated the Persian phrase kef-i-daryd, which described the frothy white clay known technically as sepiolite, a type of hydrous silicate of magnesium, as 'sea foam' meerschaum” (Louis G. Heller, et al., The Private Lives of English Words, 1984, 123).

The overwhelming evidence, at least so far, indicates that the word kummer appeared most often in French lexicons, dictionaries and books on etymology rather than in the standard works of tobacco pipe history, and that Monsieur or Herr Kummer was a figment of someone’s vivid imagination. Lots of people have the surname, Kummer, but none were ever affiliated with the pipe industry. (Parenthetically, there was at least one German Kummer, Ernst Eduard Kummer, of that era [January1810–May 1893], a mathematician, not a member of the tobacco trade.) Kummer, in German, means dolefulness or grief and, therefore, does not compute with meerschaum, and Kummer is not a French word. Etymologically, not philologically, speaking, it’s quite possible that kummer (origin unknown) was the word that was later transliterated into écume de mer.

Whereas most treatises on meerschaum argue that écume de mer is the literal translation from German, from what I have cited so far, it appears that it’s the other way around, as in that metaphor, what came first, the chicken or the egg. Why? The proof is in the writing and reading, and the preponderance, the sheer volume, of French primary and secondary sources about écume de mer far outweighs that which is in print in German about the origin of meerschaum. Hence, albeit counterintuitive, I am inclined to conclude at this point that the French coined the word first, and in the absence of any German-equivalent word, those working the German trade later transliterated écume de mer into meerschaum... maybe.


There is another, although a less substantiated, argument regarding which word came first, and that argument revolves around myrsen, mentioned in the first paragraph. When one “...hears the name ‘myrsen,’ also ‘myrshen,’ one is inclined to think that the German denomination meerschaum is derived from the Asiatic name” (The Engineering and Mining Journal, Volume 62, July 25, 1896, 81). Several other salient fragments on myrsen follow, the first of which is a not-so-helpful definition of a compound noun: “Myrsen meerschaum is pale grayish green, resembling tallow dropped upon brass, close, heavy, smooth, unctuous, glossy, not coloring, burning extremely hard and pale white; used as soap, and to make the large German tobacco pipes, or rather the bowls of them” (A. E. Youman, A Dictionary of Every-Day Wants, 1872, 498). “The meerschaum, called by the Turks (Myrsen, Keffekil), the material out of which the ancient Samian vessels were made, is yet used in Turkey for the manufacture of pipe-heads; of which only the smaller kinds are allowed to be exported” (William Howitt, Life in Germany; Scenes, Impressions, and Every-Day Life of the Germans, 1849, 170). According to Kozminsky, meerschaum “is also called keffekill and kiffekiefe, which has been credited with meaning the ‘earth of the town of Keffe or Kaffe,’ the Crimean town whence it is exported. Its technical name is Sepiolite, and its various forms are given as myrsen, meershaum, meerchum, mereschaum, merschaum, meerschaum” (Isidore Kozminsky, The Magic and Science of Jewels and Stones, 1922, 264). “Mr. Platts has an ingenious suggestion to explain Keffekill, a name for meerschaum; the usual derivation is Kaffa-gil, clay of Kaffa, the Crimean town where it was exported, but he suggests kef-i-gil, ‘foam of clay’. The admitted difficulty is that the proper Persian name is kef-i-darya, ‘foam of the sea’, but the alternative form is possible” (“The Oxford Dictionary,” The Saturday Review, No. 2,409, Vol. 92, 28 December, 1901, 810).

“There exists some controversy in regard to the derivation of its name, some writers claiming it to be from the German Meer, the sea, and schaum, foam, suggested no doubt by its appearance, while others assert that is a corruption of its Tartar name Myrsen; but it is more probable that the former one is the correct one. It is known in Persia under the name of Kiefekle, from—keff, foam or scum, and—gill, clay or mud. Its mineralogical name is Sepiolite” (“What is Meerschaum?”, The Fancier’s Journal, July 10, 1876, 313). “The French name, ecume de mer, or ‘scum of the sea,’ and the Germans ‘sea foam,’ have doubtless an intimate relationship with this same ‘keff til’ of the Crimean Tartars” (Moredcai Cubitt Cooke, The Seven Sisters of Sleep, 1860, 61). Evidently, then, myrsen was a type of clay. “The idea of our childhood, it will be remembered, was that meerschaum was a sort of petrified seafoam, hence the name “Meer,” the German word for sea, and “schaum,” which in German means scum or foam. It is probable that the word is derived from the Tartar word “myrsen,” meaning clay” (“Coloring Meerschaum Pipes,” The Practical Druggist, Vol. XXX, No. 2, February 1912, 36).

Myrsen—Seafroth. This mineral is dug up near Konie in Natolia, and is employed in forming the bowls of Turkish tobacco pipes” (Thomas Thomson, A System of Chemistry in Four Volumes, Vol. III, 1802, 498). “Meerschaum, in German, signifies sea-froth, and is by some philologists alleged to have been applied to this mineral on account of its general aspect and lightness; while others derive it from the Natolian word myrsen...When first dug from the earth, it is soft and greasy. It lathers with water like soap; hence, it is used by some nations, as by the Tartars, for washing. In Turkey, it is made into tobacco-pipes” (David Brewster, The Edinburgh Encyclopædia, Vol. XIII, 1832, 551).

In 1781 Johann Wiegelb explained: “In the Tatar language it is supposed to have been called keffekil or myrsen, from which latter name the word ‘meerschaum’ can easily have arisen through misunderstanding” (http://www.tobaccocollection.com/en/meerschaum_pipes.php). This last statement suggests that meerschaum is rooted in the word myrsen and is not a transliteration of écume de mer. What to make of all this?


The problem is that écume de mer (foam of the sea) does not translate literally into meerschaum (sea foam). Were meerschaum literally translated from French, given my limited command of German, it would have been Schaum des Meeres, a precise, exacting translation, something entirely different. “Im alten Rom Venus genannt, war sie in der griechischen Mythologie die aus dem Schaum des Meeres geborene Göttin” (In old Rome, named Venus, she [Aphrodite] was a goddess born from the foam of the sea) (http://www.mondreich.de/goetter/aphrodite.htm, and many other urls). Various accounts of classical Greek and Roman legends indicate that Dione, a sea-nymph, gave birth to her daughter, Aphrodite, beneath the waves, hence the German reasoning, Schaum des Meeres. Wikipedia is somewhat in agreement. This may be the singular reason why the mineral in German is Meerschaum, not Schaum des Meeres, as a way to differentiate between mythology and mineralogy.

The following is as good an explanation as any, I guess, because it’s not too far-fetched and it reflects the fact that the Germans are not alone in this perception:

Thanks to this German application we have accepted the German name, from meer, sea, and schaum, foam. The scientific name is ‘sepiolite,’ from Greek sepia, cuttlefish, and lithos, stone, because the mineral resembles the bone obtained from those animals. A more appropriate name for us to use that German meerschaum would have been ‘aphrodite,’ from Greek aphros, foam. This would have honored the goddess Aphrodite, supposed to have been created from sea foam. Unfortunately, however, the name is now applied to another mineral of similar composition (Charles Earle Funk, Thereby Hangs A Tale. Stories of Curious Word Origins, 1950, 191).

Again: “Unpoetical as it may appear, the German word Meerschaum, which is so familiar to us in connection with pipes, is the exact equivalent of Aphrodite” (Rev. J. G. Wood, Nature’s Teachings, 1907, 354). Or this: “I have little doubt...you have often been told by the illiterate, as I have, that meerschaum, like Aphrodite, is made from the froth of the sea; but when we come to investigate the composition of both the beautiful Anadyomene and meerschaum, we shall find they are, alas! made of common clay. Meerschaum, however, consists of hydrate of magnesia combined with silex; while Venus, I doubt not, was more composite in her nature, though hydrate of magnesia, and silex, too, would be found even in the body of a goddess” (Sydney Whiting, The Romance of a Garret, Vol. II, 1867, 26). Or this: “Aphrodite.—A mineral found at Taberg and Sala, and long supposed to be Meerschaum, has, on analysis, been found to be serpentine” (Thomas Anderson, “Analyses of New Mineral Species,” in Robert Jameson, The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, Vol. XXXII, 1842, 147). Even Oliver Wendell Holmes made mention of this: “The meerschaum is but a poor affair until it has burned a thousand offerings to the cloud-compelling deities. It comes to us without complexion or flavor,—born of the sea-foam, like Aphrodite, but colorless as pallida Mors herself” (The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, 1900, 100).


There is much, much more of this vague, fuzzy, baffling commentary in print. I am now more befogged than ever. There may be something in this can of words (not worms) worthy of another Internet interrogation, but I ain’t goin’ there! I feel like the university lad who sought an answer to this same quandary 150 years ago: “Meerschaum.—Can any of your readers inform me where is to be found the statement that the word Meerschaum is a retranslation of the French word écume de mer, which French word is a mispronunciation of the name of a certain Kummer from Vienna, who first made these pipes? (“Henri van Laun, Cheltenham College,” Notes and Queries, No. 292, August 3, 1861, 169). I don’t know if Henri received a satisfactory answer. More than a century later, in January 1996, Rickey Welch, having had his interest piqued while combing the dictionary for the connection between keffekil and meerschaum, commented in Pipes Digest Number 209 (www.pipes.org): “We may never know the ultimate historical context of this wonderful stuff we call Meerschaum!” I concur.

French is a Romance language, German is one of several Indo-European languages, and Hungarian is one of a family of Uralic languages, with some roots in Turkic languages, so these three are essentially different branches of the language tree. Hungary and Turkey are neighbors. There is little doubt that the first meerschaums pipes were produced in Turkey and, then, chronologically, in Hungary. With its geographical proximity to and trade with its neighbor, Turkey, any or all three of these terms —lületaşi, keffekil, and myrsen—may have been the customary argot for quite some time among many Magyar pipe carvers.

By the mid-18th century, meerschaum was a marketable commodity in Germany, and German craftsmen exhibited pipes of this material at the 1750 Leipzig Fair. Soon enough, the French were employing Viennese and Hungarian meerschaum carvers in their small ateliers, so it’s likely that all the descriptors for this mineral became comingled, scrambled or modified within these several countries. Myrsen probably crossed the Turkish and Austro-Hungarian border heading west, but the words lületaşi and keffekil did not, so how did the words écume de mer and meerschaum evolve? Myrsen and meerschaum are relatively close homophones; kummer and écume de mer are also close homophones, that is, they are pronounced similarly, although they are spelled differently.

Which sources are reliable and where did they get their information? It’s near impossible to trace it all backward unless actual facts are revealed. It appears that the origin, provenance, and derivation of meerschaum, the word, is much more French—they conducted a more animated, often contentious, dialogue in print about its origin—less so, German. Trying to make sense of all this, the possible chronological avenues of transformation were:

  • From East to West: myrsen: meerschaum: écume de mer
  • From West to East: kummer: écume de mer: meerschaum
  • Kummer: écume de mer. Either with or without the antecedent kummer, France coined her own descriptor, écume de mer.
  • Myrsen: meerschaum. Either with or without the antecedent myrsen, Germany coined her own descriptor, meerschaum.
  • Other mutations and permutations of these words that I have not discovered.
  • None of the above, because this trivial issue matters not one iota to a meerschaum pipe smoker or meerschaum pipe collector.

Pick one or none! After all, in this essay, reading—not seeing—is unbelievable. The logic of Occam’s razor applies: from among competing hypotheses select that which makes the fewest assumptions and, thereby, offers the simplest explanation of the effect. My interpretation—and I am not on terra firma—is that myrsen was the operative term used in Germany until the popularity and general acceptance of écume de mer spread west; then, the Germans opted to transliterate the French term, rather than retain myrsen. It’s likely that it occurred this way. For anyone else in hot pursuit of ground truth, the issue is still wide open for debate. For sure, Kummer, real or imagined, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral, hoax or history, played no significant role.

The trouble with all this information is that it lacks synthesis. It’s an aggregation, a mishmash that I am unable to confidently unify and fuse. It’s a story with an ending, but it is not the end of this story. Not even elegant scholarship and logic can make sense of this smoker’s salmagundi. As I see it, it took almost 200 years for both scholar- and hobbyist-writer-researchers to give Kovàcs his comeuppance, and a lesser number of years to quash the Kummer caper. However, the wellspring and interrelationship of these six words—meerschaum, écume de mer, kummer, myrsen, keffekil, and lületaşi—remain, for me, a mega-mystery. The factual origin, the antecedents, the unadulterated, unvarnished version of the interrelationship, if any, may never be revealed. This is as far down as I intend to dig. I have concluded that pursuing this any further is like the proverbial, perplexing Pandora’s box, best left unopened, but it sure was fun—and, simultaneously, frustrating—trying to find out!