Chemhistory: What’s In a Name

Meagan Cardno - 4B Nanotechnology
Posted on: January 29, 2017

For many of us, even in engineering, there are only a select few elements on the periodic table that are of interest to us in our lives – usually those in first two or three rows, and whose names rhyme with carbon. However, it sometimes is rather obvious when looking at the known elements and their associated symbols that some funny business is going on with the naming conventions. Perhaps the origins of some names, such as Bohrium or Californium, probably do not need to be explained, as we as humans do so love to name things after people and places — so much as we even give the habits their own names, referring to substances named after people as “eponymous” and after places as “toponymous”.

Of course some naming conventions are more creative than others – cerium, element 58 and a lanthanide, was discovered in 1803 and named for the dwarf planet Ceres, which was discovered two years earlier — although at the time, it was believed to be an asteroid. I guess it was selfless of Swedish chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius to not name it after himself, but he could’ve at least named it after his cat or something. The now-planet/then-asteroid Ceres itself was already named after the roman goddess of the same name, goddess of fertility and agriculture, which makes it even more absurd of a name to consider. I guess whatever floats your boat, Berzelius.
There are more mythical etymologies we can explore as well. Helium was named for the sun and its god, helios, and mercury for the god and planet of the same name. However, Mercury is also listed to the frustration of high-schoolers everywhere with the symbol of Hg, two letters which are not used when spelling mercury. This stands for the latin term hydrargyrum, meaning “water(hydra)-silver(argyrum), referencing its silvery liquid state at room temperatures. 
Perhaps you might guess then why silver is given the symbol Ag — or perhaps you just remember that argent is French for Silver. Either way you’d be correct, as both come from the Latin root argentum, describing something shiny or white. This is also the namesake of the country we know today as Argentina, which was visited out by many European explorers for mythical “silver mountains” containing large amounts of the valuable metal. But then, where did the English term “silver” come from then? It’s the descendant of the term used by ancient cultures in reference to the precious metal long before it was designed as an element, including known Anglo-Saxon spellings such as seolfor and siolfor, or Germanic spellings like silabar and silbir.
Don’t let this confuse you about the phonetically similar noble gas, argon. It’s name is a direct romanization of the word ἀργόν (argon), which literally means “inactive” in greek. You can probably guess why the highly non-reactive gas was given this name. It’s noble cousin, krypton, was named similarly for its properties, from the Latin kryptos, where we also get the adjective “cryptic” or the study of cryptology. The term means “hidden”, referring to the element’s elusiveness both in rarity as well as in measurement, being colourless, odourless, flavourless, and just as non-reactive as the other noble gases.
This only begins to scratch the surface of the odd but unique origins of the origins of words – iridium comes from the same root word iris that we give to the coloured part of our eye and the vibrant flower due to its salts being known for their bright colours, while the “Pb” symbol of lead comes from the latin plumbum, which is where our modern term of “plumbing” originates due to lead being widely used as plumbing material. Next time you wonder why something is spelled the way it is or referred to in an odd way, perhaps take a look into the etymology — you might just find a hidden story written amongst those phonetic similarities and silent letters.