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    Origin of the Names of Chemical Elements

    In 1985 David W. Ball published an article in the Journal of Chemical Education on "Elemental Etymology: What's in a Name?"(1). He presented translations of the names of elements. In this present article the etymology and the reason scientist(s) coined a specific name for a newly discovered element are surveyed. The variation in naming customs throughout the ages is also considered. The historical viewpoint leads to a grouping of the elements into 10 categories as compared to Ball's(1) six. One of the new categories included here, names from minerals or ores (Table 6), reflects common practice some 200-300 years ago in the naming of the elements. Before presenting the etymology of the present names of the chemical elements, mention is given to the names of the seven ancient metals.

    The names of the seven ancient metals

    In ancient times, humankind knew of seven metals and seven celestial bodies and assigned seven days to a week. No wonder that the metals and the days were related to the celestial bodies. Colour was often the criterion used for relating a particular planet to a metal. Gold was associated with the yellow corona of the sun, the white silver shone like the moon at night, and the red tint of Mars could be related to iron (rust?). Lead was associated with Saturn because it was a heavy metal; it would "move slowly", as Saturn seemed to do. (Saturn was believed to move slowly because it was the planet farthest from the sun and thus took the longest to complete its orbit.) During the Middle Ages, the metals and the planets were so closely connected that they bore similar names and were given similar symbols. Literature from the 16th century could be perceived either as astrology or alchemy. Table 1 demonstrates the connections between the names of metals, celestial bodies, and the days of the week. If one looks at the words for the days of the week, the connection with the names of the celestial bodies is obvious. A selective combination of different languages, can read like this: Sunday, Monday, Mardi, Mercredi, Jeudi, Friday and Saturday. (Friday originates from the goddess Freya, a Norse counterpart to Venus.)
    In chemistry the linguistic connections are fewer. Mercury is the only metal still bearing an ancient name of a planet. We find relics of Mars in Ma(r)sofen, a German and Scandinavian word for "blast furnace" in which iron oxides are reduced. Masofen is a word still in use. Before World War ll, saturnism was a synonym for lead poisoning. And lunar caustic (silver nitrate) may still be read of in some textbooks of pharmacology as a caustic used to treat warts.

    During the Middle Ages, when the alchemists tried to transform various metals into gold, their procedures were kept secret. Names such as "sugar of Saturn" for lead acetate and "spirit of Veneris" for sulfuric acid, the latter produced by distillation of copper(II) sulfate, are examples of this secrecy. This type of nomenclature persisted until the end of the 19th century. At that time the names of substances were given by proper chemists. However, they could refer to iron(II) carbonate as "martial chalk" and to tin(II) acetate as "vitriol of Jupiter" (2). As we have seen, seven ancient metals have at one time been named after celestial bodies. This type of naming has also been applied to elements discovered later, for instance, uranium and neptunium (3). We shall now see how the roughly 100 elements got their present names.

    The etymology of the present names of chemical elements

    In the following, the origin of the present names of the chemical elements is surveyed. Ten tables (Tables 3-12), each concentrating on one particular naming custom are presented. Table 2 shows the 10 naming customs that have been used and the number of elements in each group.
    The ancient elements have names of "obscure origin" according to Ball(2). These names have been given a thorough analysis by Jensen (4) and are classified below as prechemical names (Table 3). The etymology cited is taken from Jensen.

    The etymological explanation of the names of chemical elements (1-7) is not always unambiguous. In consequence, two or more explanations may be given for a single element. The word "arsenic", for example, may originate from the Greek word arsenikos denoting male or masculine. The masculinity may relate to the alchemists attaching metals to sexes (Table 5) or to wall paintings on uncovered human skin, which, in ancient Greece, were painted yellow with arsenic(III) sulfide on men, but white on women. In a more modern opinion the word "arsenic" descends from zarnik (persian), which means golden(4). Such distinct meanings may in fact lead to different placements of an element in the following series of tables.

    Some names are derived from names of the minerals or ores from which the elements were isolated. One specific type of these names - geographical names - receives special attention (Table 10). The rest of the elements with names after minerals or ores are listed in Table 6.

    A total of 23 elements have geographical names. Besides those with geographical names after minerals or ores (Table 10), there are the ones named after the domiciles or workplaces of the discoverers of the elements (Table 9). All elements may be located on a "chemical map" (Figure 1).

     The names of the chemical elements in historical retrospect

    In order to look for connections between naming habits and time periods of discovery of the elements, two periodic tables are prepared. In Figure 2 the elements are labelled according to naming custom, while in Figure 3 they are labelled according to time of discovery.
    Figures 2 and 3 show that some naming methods are typical for certain periods. The information drawn from the two figures is summarized in Table 13. In the following, a more detailed presentation of the naming customs in each time period as some historical comments are given.

    Ancient Times

    In ancient times man knew of seven metals and two non-metals. Our trivial names for these elements are prechemical names. The names have developed through the ages as other words have. One property to which our ancestors attached importance is the shiny appearance of the metals. The words "gold", "silver", "platinum", and "tin" (and the German word Blei for lead) may be traced back to this characteristic (Table 3).

    The Middle Ages - 1700's

    Not only the metallic lustre but also other properties must have been borne in mind as the words for the elements developed. Some of the names indicate properties of the elements or of compounds of the elements. Antimony, for example, received its Latin name (stibium) in allusion to the black mark left by drawing the mineral stibnite on a piece of paper or along the eyebrows. However, the etymological explanation for some of the names of elements (As, Bi, Zn) discovered in this period is uncertain. The names originate from substances people used before chemistry was classified as a science.
    The first element linked to one particular discoverer is phosphorus. It was discovered by German Hennig Brand about 1670. He was looking for the "philosopher's stone". He may have believed he was successful when he observed the light from his distillation apparatus containing evaporated urine. Some minerals had previously been shown to give off faint light in the dark, among them the Bolognese stone (ignited barium sulfate). All such specimens were called "phos-phor" = "light-bearer" during the Middle Ages. The name "phosphorous" was eventually used exclusively for element 15.


    The second half of the 18th century was a time for reforms in chemical nomenclature. Antoine Laurent Lavoisier(8) produced a table of elements with several new names and new elements. He asserted that the names of all new elements should give information on the properties of the elements. He believed that oxygen was a component of all acids, he had in 1777 named that element oxy-gen ("acid-producer') (Table 8). He called N2 a-zote ("not-life") because animals died if they respired air depleted of oxygen. In 1790 the Frenchman Jean Antoine Chaptal proposed nitrogene, the French name for the gas that we now recognize as the element nitrogen, but ironically the word azote was in use until recently in France. Relics of the word azote is found in the present name of compounds with the functional group -N=N-, the azo-compounds.

    One specific property was often stressed in the names of elements, namely the colour. The colour of an element itself or of a compound of the element formed the basis of names of five elements discovered in the period 1774- 1811. The elements are chlorine, iodine, chromium, rhodium, and iridium (Table 7).

    From 1735 and 1830 it was common practice to give new elements names originating from mythology or superstition. Cobalt and nickel were so named because miners thought sprites or devils had been on the move when it was impossible to extract copper from their "copper" ores. Names from Norse and Greek mythology were also given to newly discovered elements. Eight out of a total of 10 elements bearing names from mythology or superstition (Table 5) were discovered during this time period.

     From 1782 to 1817 five elements were named after planets. Astronomy went through tremendous changes reflected in the names of some elements (Table 4). Uranus was discovered in 1781 , and uranium (1789) was named thereafter. The asteroids Ceres and Pallas were discovered in 1801-1802, and the metals cerium and palladium were discovered and named a year later. But, until then, not one element was named after the Earth! Element 52 was therefore named tellurium. When another element with properties similar to those of tellurium was discovered 25 years later, the same naming custom was used and the closely related name - selenium (the Moon) - was chosen.

    The dominating naming custom for about 100 years starting in 1750 was to use the name of the mineral or ore in which the element occurred and add to it a proper suffix (Table 6). In Figures 2 and 3 the same labels are used for names from minerals and ores as for the period 1735-1843. In many cases the minerals or ores were known for a long time and bore, themselves, prechemical names. These names developed in a similar way as the words for the ancient metals. Alumen, the base syllable for aluminium, is one example of such an old name.

     1843 - 1886

    In the course of the four years from 1859 to 1863, four new elements were discovered as a result of the invention of spectroscopy by Robert Wilhelm Bunsen and Gustav Robert Kirchhoff (3). They identified new characteristic lines in some spectra, which could be traced back to new elements. The substance with a greyish blue line was called "cesium" and the one with two dark red lines was called "rubidium' (Table 7). This research method was adopted by other scientists. William Crookes named his new element with a green line "thallium", and Ferdinand Reich and Hieronymus Theodor Richter named theirs with an indigo blue line "indium". Thus the same technique had led to the same naming procedure.
    At the end of the 19th century, a new naming custom was introduced. The elements were given names after the domicile or workplace of the discoverer(s). Elements such as europium, gallium, and germanium signal this new naming custom (Table 9). Down to recent times new elements are named accordingly, for example, californium and berkelium.

    1894 - 1918

    In 1835 Michael Faraday constructed words from the classical languages Greek and Latin. He introduced words like "ion", "cathode", and "electrolysis". Later, when the noble gases were discovered, this practice used words from Greek and Latin to construct names for the elements. In 1894 William Ramsay and Baron Rayleigh (John William Strutt) independently discovered that atmospheric air in addition to oxygen and nitrogen consisted of still another element. They proposed the name "aeron" derived from aer (air) for their new element. The critics argued that the resemblance of aeron to the name Aaron from the Bible was too close. They did, however, accept the word "argon", meaning lazy or unreactive. In the course of the year 1898 krypton, neon, and xenon were discovered, and all three gases were given constructed names. There had definitely been hiding (krypton) some new (neon), strange (xenon) elements in atmospheric air! (Table 11).
    The same naming practice was often used for related elements. This may be exemplified by the names of the radioactive elements: radium, actinium, radon, and protactinium. The names of these four elements are derived from either the Greek or the Latin word for "ray". (The word "radioactive", which was coined by Marie Curie, is itself constructed.)

    1923 - 1965

    The American research group at the University of California, Berkeley, under the leadership of the Nobel Prize winner Glenn Theodore Seaborg, has been very active and successful. The group has discovered several elements, among them berkelium, californium, and americium. Through the geographical names given to these elements, the group has assured that their stimulating workplace will be familiar to later generations of chemistry students and researchers (Table 9).

     The elements located one and two places beyond uranium in the periodic table were discovered at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1940. The discoveries suggested naming the elements neptunium and plutonium, the planets Neptune and Pluto being one and two "places" beyond Uranus. Thus, an old-fashioned naming custom was applied because the elements were closely related to an element bearing a similar name, that name being coined during a previous time period.

    Not one discoverer has suggested his family name as the name of a chemical element. It might, however, have been rather inconvenient to name an element accordingly, when as many as 16 persons were credited with the discovery of elements 99 and 100. Very few elements are actually named after persons. ln 1944 the nuclear physicists started the practice of naming elements after former outstanding chemists and physicists. Element 96 was called curium in honour of Marie and Pierre Curie and their pioneering work on radioactive elements. Later other elements were named accordingly (Table 12).

    1965 -

    In 1965 the Russian group at Dubna claimed to have produced an isotope of element 104. The American group at Berkeley was unable to confirm the findings but claimed its own discovery of (some other isotopes of) the element. Correspondingly, the Dubna group in 1967 claimed discovery of element 105, and the Berkeley group did likewise in 1970. Both groups proposed names for each of the two elements. Element 104 was called "kurtchatovium" and "rutherfordium", respectively, and 105 was called "nielsbohrium" and "hahnium" - all names in honour of famous scientists.

     Rules for naming new elements

    18th and 19th centuries

    It has always been the right of the discoverer to suggest a name for his new element. Some of the present names deviate, however, from the proposals given by the discoverers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Bromine, for instance, was isolated from brine by the Frenchman Antoine-Jerome Balard in 1828. He proposed the Latin word muride - denoting brine - as the name of the new element. A commission of famous French chemists accepted the discovery but disputed the name because chlorine for a long time had been spoken of as radical muriatique (7). The commission named the substance brome, a word soon accepted and given relevant orthography in different languages.

    The majority of the suggestions of names of new elements have been accepted by the society of chemists and become the official names. Element 41 represents a sort of exception. In 1902, the Englishman Charles Hatchett discovered a new element in a mineral that the British Museum had received from America some 50 years earlier. He named the element "colombium" in honour of America and its discoverer. The following year the Swede Anders Gustaf Ekeberg analysed a specimen of tantalum mineral and discovered a new element. He called his element "niobium" because of its resemblance to tantalum. (Niobe was the daughter of Tantalos.) The name niobium became commonly accepted in Europe, whereas the Americans adopted columbium as their name of Hatchett's element, which later proved to be identical with niobium.

    IUPAC Rules

    In 1921 the IUPAC's commission on the Nomenclature of Inorganic Chemistry (CNIC) was established. In 1938 the commission prepared rules, which were published in 1940.

     No instructions regarding how to name new elements were given. In 1957 new CNIC rules came into being (9). They comprised a list of elements and included some naming directions; however, no directions regarding the specific (root of the) word to choose as the name of a new element were given. The second edition, 1970(10), states no alterations as compared to the 1957 issue of customs for naming the elements. The CNIC has, for instance, not set a standard that names after persons should be given priority to constructed names. The discoverer proposes a name of the element, and the CNIC has the duty to name it - that is the practice.

    If different names of an element are in use, the CNIC will select one name "based upon considerations of prevailing usage and practicability"(10). It is emphasised that the selection carries no implication regarding priority of the discovery. In 1949 the CNIC settled the dispute of niobium/columbium to the advantage of niobium. It is not known whether the CNIC took into account the fact that the mythological names (niobium) were usual types of names at the date of discovery, whereas geographical names (columbium) had not yet come into use.

    In Russian and Scandinavian textbooks element 104 is referred to as "kurtchatovium" (Ku), while American and English textbooks write "rutherfordium" (Rf). An IUPAC-IUPAP committee is currently discussing the claims for priority of discovery of elements 104-110. In 1976 the CNIC decided, for the time being, to recommend the usage of systematic names for elements beyond element 103 in the periodic table in order to avoid confusion and to be sure that every chemist is talking about the same element. The systematic name of element 104 is "unnilquadium" (un = 1, nil = 0, quad = 4, and -ium denoting a metal and that of element 105 is "unnilpentium"(11).

    In this article the etymological explanations of names of chemical elements have been surveyed. Several types of names are disclosed as are different naming customs of the past and naming rules of the present. It is believed that placing chemistry in a linguistic and historical context is a way of increasing students' interest in chemistry.

    1. Ball D.W., J. Chem. Educ. 1985,62, 787-788.
    2. Crosland, M.P., Historical Studies in the Language of Chemistry; Dover: New York, 1978.
    3. Weeks, M.E., Discovery of the Elements, 7th ed.; rev' by Leicester, H.M.; Journal of Chemical Education: Easton, PA, 1968.
    4. Jensen, K.A., Dansk kemi 1985, 5, 149-157.
    5. Weast, R.C., CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, 60th ed.; CRC: Boca Raton, FL, 1983; B3-B27.
    6. Bevan, S.C.; Gregg, S.J.; Rosseinsky, A., Concise Etymological Dictionary of Chemistry, Applied Science: London, 1976.
    7. Rancke-Madsen, E. Grundstoffernes Opdagelseshistorie ("History of the Discovery of the Chemical Elements"), Gad: Copenhagen, 1984.
    8. Lavoisier, A.L., Traite Elementaire de Chimie; Paris, 1789.
    9. International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. Nomenclature of Inorganic Chemistry, Definitive Rules; Butterworths: London, 1959.
    10. International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. Nomenclature of Inorganic Chemistry, Definitive Rules, 2nd ed.; Butterworths: London, 1971.
    11. Scott, W.A.H., Educ. Chem. 1983, 4,5.

    Queensland Branch Schools' Chemistry Lecture 1991 ...


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