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No. 1235:
Naming the Chemical Elements

Today, we name the elements. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Last week, a student asked how oxygen got its name, and I didn't remember. Next day another student showed up with a paper by Norwegian scholar Vivi Ringnes, who explains how all the chemical elements got their names.

Seven metals and seven planets were known in the ancient world. So we associated metals with planets. Gold was the color of the sun, silver the color of moon, rusted iron the color of the red planet Mars. Mercury still carries the name of its planet. Tin was Jupiter, copper was Venus. And Saturn, with its huge orbit, seemed to move leadenly through the night sky.

Those names also attach to the days of the week. Monday's the day of the moon. We have Sun-day, Satur-day, and so on. The French word for Tuesday is Mardi (or Mars day.) The old Nordic word for an iron smelter -- Masofen -- is literally a softener of Mars.

Medieval alchemists added new kinds of names. Since arsenic strengthened copper, they saw it as male and used the Greek word for maleness, arsenikos. Medieval miners found ores that looked like copper ore but weren't. They called them devil's copper or kupfernickel. When they found they could extract a new metal from one of those ores, they named it nickel, which means devil. So we shifted away from names of planets and mythic characters toward function.

Come back to that student's question about oxygen: Late 18th-century chemistry was evolving at the hands of scientists like Antoine Lavoisier who believed we should name elements rationally - - in terms of what they did.

So when Lavoisier isolated oxygen, he used the Greek oxy for acid and gen for generator. He thought all acids were generated by this new oxygen. The word hydrogen likewise means water generator. Nitrogen means the generator of nitre or saltpeter.

But logic falls apart as we learn more chemistry. Not all acids involve oxygen, and hydrogen forms far more chemicals than just water. Lavoisier's names grew increasingly irrational. So we began naming elements after places: gallium after Gaul, the old name of France, Scandium for Scandinavia. Glen Seaborg named Berkelium, Californium, and Americium after his town, state, and country.

It's to the credit of the scientists who've identified the 109 elements that none of the elements yet bear their names. We've granted that much transcendence to the clay of which we are all made. But recent elements have posthumously been named Curium, Einsteinium, Nobelium.

Still these materials are not the fruit of human intellects. Better to laugh at ourselves as we name them. We named Niobium after Niobe, daughter of Tantalus, simply because it resembled the element tantalum. Better to put ourselves in the background when we deal in things so far more basic than our limited logic.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Ringnes, V., Origin of the Names of Chemical Elements. Journal of Chemical Education, Vol. 66, No. 9, 1989, pp. 731-736

I am grateful to Scott Riley, student in UH course MECE 3301, for providing the Ringnes article.