Beneficiation: It probably doesn’t mean what you think it does.

Yes, I continue to encounter, investigate, and explain obscure words—so that you don’t have to!

In this installment: beneficiation.

The term comes from mining, and unless you’re familiar with that industry, you probably haven’t encountered it and won’t know what it means.

It comes from the verb beneficiate, which in turn (according to OED) derives from the Spanish verb beneficiar, “to derive profit from a mine.” In English, the definition is slightly different, as profit is not explicitly involved. The word instead describes (broadly) any process that concentrates or enriches ore, in the sense of, basically, having a smaller pile of rocks with the same amount of useful material in it. Beneficiation of ore means that ultimately there’s less unwanted material (technically known as gangue) in the same quantity of ore.

The free version of Oxford gives a concise definition of the verb form:

beneficiate: Treat (a raw material) to improve its properties.

It seems to be most commonly done through grinding, but can be accomplished in other ways, such as flotation, leaching, and magnetic separation.

Here’s a little on the topic of beneficiation, purely from the economic side, from the government of South Africa. It’s all about adding value as materials move up the chain.

The first use of beneficiation in English is cited as 1873, in an American mining publication. However, it was easy enough to find a use from 1853 online. The word shows up twice in a larger volume that appears to be a collection of contemporary reports on all aspects of the mining industry; beneficiation is used in the December section, on page 572, in a passage describing the typical operations of silver mines in Mexico. Despite the many Spanish terms called out in that text, beneficiation is not highlighted as a foreign word. It’s used without definition or explanation, so it has to be assumed that readers were likely to understand the meaning, at least in the context of mining at that time.

It also turns up in an 1854 book summarizing US Navy exploration of the Amazon, again without definition, so a determined researcher can probably find even earlier uses.

As a relatively obscure and specialized term, it’s not included in all dictionaries. Merriam-Webster lists it (with an 1881 first use), but it’s not in the AHD.

Never anything but a specialized term, the word appears to have seen heaviest use from the 1940s to around 2000, with peak use (such as it is) from the ’50s to the ’80s. Of course, it’s still part of industry jargon today.

How did I even stumble across this word? An ill-explained use (or is that actually a misuse? It’s hard to be sure.) dropped at the end of a moderately interesting article on asteroid mining.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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2 Responses to Beneficiation: It probably doesn’t mean what you think it does.

  1. Pam Phillips says:

    I may have a story that could use this word.

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