How did the chemical elements get their names?
Etymologically, chemical elements are in a class of their own. Unlike much of the English language, the names of elements tend to have been chosen by the researchers who first discovered them rather than developing organically over time. There are no rules as to how these names are decided, but the history of chemistry reveals some quite fascinating trends…
People and places
Many are the people who, for their contributions to science, have been honoured with an element named after them. Among the most illustrious are Nicolaus Copernicus (copernicum, Cn), first to publish the outrageous suggestion that the Sun did not revolve around the Earth; Alfred Nobel (nobelium, No), best known for inventing dynamite and founding the Nobel prizes, and Albert Einstein (Einsteinium, Es), who developed the general theory of relativity. Some names took a detour through other languages: gallium, Ga, was named after its French discoverer Lecoq, whose name translates to ‘the cockerel’ in English, ‘gallus’ in Latin.
Another trend is for researchers to name new elements after a place. European nations and cities get the most recognition, often as the places where elements were first discovered or out of the researchers’ sense of patriotism. A few places receive recognition that seems perhaps disproportionate to their size, such as the village of Strontian in the Scottish Highlands where strontium (Sr) was mined, or Ytterby on the Swedish island of Resarӧ, which gave its name to no fewer than four elements: ytterbium (Yb), yttrium (Y), terbium (Tb), and erbium (Er). The last three are intended to reflect the decreasing strength of the metal oxides by using decreasing proportions of the original word.
Metals and mythology
You are probably aware that the planets in our solar system take their names from the Roman names of the classical gods. What you might not know is that each planet was further associated with a metal: gold (Au) with the Sun, iron (Fe) with Mars, mercury (Hg) with – you guessed it – Mercury, and so on. This trend was picked up by researchers in the 19th and early 20th century, so that a number of elements get their names ‘second-hand’, as it were, from Classical mythology. Cerium (Ce) was named in 1804 after the recently discovered asteroid Ceres, in turn named after the classical goddess of agriculture. Pallas, the next asteroid to be discovered, which was named after the goddess Pallas Athena, gave its name to palladium (Pd).
Martin Heinrich Klaproth, a German chemist at the turn of the 19th century, set off quite a chain of events with the naming of element 92 (uranium, U) after the god and planet Uranus in 1790. He named titanium (Ti) after the Titans, by analogy with uranium’s naming after the god, and named tellurium (Te) after the Earth (Latin tellus) by analogy with uranium’s naming after the planet. In 1818, J. J. Berzelius chose the name selenium (Se), from the Greek selene for ‘moon’, for his newly discovered element, on the basis of its similar chemical properties to tellurium. A century and a half later, Enrico Fermi revived the trail by naming neptunium (Np), the element which comes after uranium in the periodic table, after the next planet in the solar system. Finally, in 1942, Seaborg & Wahl chose the name plutonium (Pu) for element 94, again reflecting the order of the planets (or what was then considered a planet).
Anders Ekeburg, a Swedish chemist, decided to follow the trend but with a slightly more imaginative twist. The element he had discovered in 1802, unlike many metals, was unable to absorb acid. Thus he chose to name it after the Greek mythological character Tantalus, eternally condemned to stand in a pool of water up to his chin that receded when he bent towards, so that he was never able to take a drink (tantalum, Ta). When German researcher Heinrich Rose discovered a further element with very similar properties to tantalum, he named the element after Tantalus’s daughter Niobe, famous for being turned to stone as punishment for her pride (niobium, Nb).
Not to be outdone, of course, various Norse gods also make an appearance, with Thor, the hammer-bearing god of thunder, giving his name to thorium (Th), while vanadium (V) takes its name from Vanadís, Freyja, the goddess of fertility.
In an interesting turn of events, several elements got their naming caught up in the intricacies of the Cold War. The so-called ‘Transfermium Wars’ (where ‘transfermium’ refers to the elements following fermium in the periodic table) arose as a result of a dispute between Soviet researchers in Dubna and American researchers in Berkeley as to who first discovered the elements 104, 105, and 106. Traditionally, the naming rights of an element go to those who discovered it; but in the climate of general distrust between the two nations, establishing who the discoverers were was not an easy task.
Mirroring the events outside the world of chemistry research, an international organization – the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, formed in 1919 – stepped in to mediate, with eventual agreement in 1997, long after the end of the Cold War itself. The Dubna lab was recognized in its own element (dubnium, Db) – Berkeley already had its name enshrined in chemical nomenclature with berkelium, Bk, named in 1950. The most recent names honoured included Nobel laureates Ernest Rutherford, a key player in the development of nuclear physics, and Glenn Seaborg, unusual for having had an element named after him while he was still alive.
A few fun facts to leave you with…
- The supposed element didymium was named after the Greek word for ‘twin’, because of its close association with lanthanium. Ironically, it was later discovered to be itself composed of two metals, neodymium (Nd) and praseodymium (Pr).
- Nickel (Ni) and cobalt (Co) were both named by disgruntled German-speaking miners. Nickel is named after a michievous spirit inhabiting mines, because the mined ore which apparently contained copper turned out not to. Cobalt comes from the German Kobold, ‘goblin’, so named because it didn’t produce the hoped-for metal ore but did produce dangerous arsenic fumes.
- Radium (Ra), discovered by Pierre and Marie Curie in 1898, was used variously as a trade name for hosiery, boot polish, and fabric. It is still used to designate a woven fabric with a slight shine.
- Phosphorus (P) was named after the Morning Star, because it spontaneously ignites on contact with air.
- Aluminium (Al) was named first alumium and later aluminum by its discoverer (H. Davy), but not aluminium – this form first appears in a review of one of his lectures.