The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Tantalise’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

What does the word ‘tantalise’ have to do with the chemical element ‘tantalum’? And what is the connection of both of these to the figure of Tantalus from Greek mythology? The etymology of the word ‘tantalise’ is bound up with a mythical king and a curious story about a punishment he was forced to suffer.

So let’s take a look at the story of King Tantalus and how this relates to an everyday word we use to describe the act of teasing someone with something that always remains just out of reach.

Tantalus was the son of Zeus and Pluto – not the god of the Underworld but a daughter of Cronus (or, in some versions, a daughter of Atlas). Tantalus became king of Mount Sipylus and grew very rich. He had everything: money, power, and a beautiful wife (Dione, one of the Pleiades or ‘Seven Sisters’, who gave their name to a constellation).

Curiously, there may have been a historical man named Tantalus. The name has been attached to a ruler of an Anatolian city named ‘Tantalís’, which means ‘the city of Tantalus’. In other accounts, this Tantalus was indeed the ruler of a city named ‘Sipylus’. The ancient Greek writer and early geographer Pausanias wrote of a port named after Tantalus.

We don’t know how grounded in historical reality the figure known to us as Tantalus really was. But we do know that the mythical Tantalus, as well as being rich beyond his wildest dreams and having a beautiful wife, was also loved by the gods. In short, he had everything one man (or demigod) could wish for.

How did he end up suffering eternal torment, then? It was all thanks to a dog, oddly enough. Or at least, it started with a dog.

A figure named Pandareos had stolen a golden dog which had been created to keep watch over the infant Zeus. Pandareos handed the stolen dog to Tantalus for safekeeping, but when he asked it for it back, Tantalus denied that he had it. Zeus, angered by Tantalus’ perjury (and in some versions of the story, Tantalus was even the one who stole the dog himself), decided to inflict a terrible punishment on him.

So Zeus imprisoned Tantalus under Mount Sipylus before Tantalus was sent off to the Underworld to endure his eternal punishment. And it is this punishment for which he is now best-remembered.

Invited by the gods to dine with them in the Underworld, Tantalus revealed the secrets of the gods’ special food and drink to humans, much as Prometheus is credited with stealing fire from the gods and giving its secret to mankind. Thanks to Tantalus spilling the beans, or the ambrosia anyway, mortals knew about the ambrosia and nectar which the gods ate and drank. And the gods weren’t happy at their culinary secrets being passed on to lowly man in this way.

However, the nature of Tantalus’ punishment for this transgression varies from telling to telling. In one version, he was placed under a big stone which hovered just above him, in constant danger of falling.

But the most famous version is surely the one in which Tantalus was condemned to live in a state of perpetual hunger and thirst, plunged into water which, whenever he went to take a sip, moved away from him. He was also doomed to be eternally hungry, taunted with a branch full of luscious and juicy fruit just above his head. But whenever he reached up to pluck some berries from the tree, it disappeared out of his reach.

For this reason, the verb tantalise came into being, meaning to torment somebody by showing a promised thing which is always kept just out of reach. For this reason, strictly speaking, tantalise should perhaps not be used as a straightforward synonym for ‘tease’, since teasing may end in fulfilment, but tantalising never does, if the spirit of the verb remains true to its origins in the myth.

What of the chemical element named tantalum? Supposedly this is because tantalum is a rare metal derived from a mineral, tantalite, which is itself rare. But the rarity is not the reason the element was named after Tantalus.

In 1814, a Swedish chemist named Jöns Jacob Berzelius determined that an element which another chemist, Anders Gustaf Eckberg, had discovered was indeed a wholly new element, and therefore needed a name. He decided to call it tantalum because this element – a metal – resisted the action of acids: if the metal was placed in acid, it remained unaffected. This put Berzelius in mind of Tantalus, who stood in the water but was unaffected by it in that he could never drink from it. And that is how tantalum came to be so named.

However, some people have sought (erroneously) to link the name tantalum not to Tantalus but to tantalise, arguing that the element was so named because scientists had been ‘tantalised’ by the element, which had evaded their accurate analysis of it for several years before it was eventually identified. This is a false etymology, but an intriguing one.

There is another element, niobium, named after Tantalus’ daughter, Niobe.