A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
Elements of Surprise
The periodic table of elements is an iconic image familiar to anyone with even the rudiments of education and it is perhaps one of the most successful visual representations of information ever conceived: it brings a high level of order to a field of knowledge that is too complex to organize in memory and it rewards study at every level. Even a person with no interest in chemistry or physics can appreciate its organization and take something useful away from it.
The lexicon of the periodic table of elements is less elegant, as is the case of so many things in language that "come to us from our forefathers as an odd jumble". The recent announcement of proposed new names for the four recently discovered elements provides an occasion to visit the nomenclature of the table's constituents. Though the names of elements depart greatly from the elegance of their organization in the table, they all have tales to tell and many are surprising.
So let's start with the good news: there are patterns in the names of some elements, especially more newly discovered ones. Since 2002, the naming of new elements has been overseen by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) and even before that, there were a number of conventions in place, reflecting a much earlier observation from French chemist Guyton de Morveau. He's credited with producing the first systematic method for naming chemicals and he observed in 1782 that it was desirable for elements to have "a constant method of denomination, which helps the intelligence and relieves the memory".
It's no accident that so many elements in the table end in –ium, for example, because this suffix was settled on as an indicator for metals (which make up the majority of elements) on the model of elements named in the 19th century: potassium, sodium, and magnesium. This might well suggest that the Brits have it right (or at least have consistency on their side) in saying aluminium rather than aluminum, as the Americans have it. But those who would look for perfect consistency in any aspect of language will nearly always be disappointed. Such persons might suggest that helium (a noble gas, not a metal) be renamed helon, for example, in order to reflect the –on suffix that distinguishes every other noble gas, but these persons will be disappointed. If there is a force greater than logical consistency in the naming of elements, it is surely the force of history and precedent. Helium came by its name in the late 19th century, by which time a pattern (though not a set of rules) was emerging for naming elements. The –ium in helium can be thought of as carrying the meaning "derived from," with the hel- part representing Greek helios, "sun," it having been inferred that helium was present in the sun's atmosphere. This same derivative principle is behind potassium (from potash), sodium (from soda), and magnesium (from magnesia).
Many of the most commonly known metals, however, did not attract the -ium ending because they were known, mined, and manipulated long before the table was devised—indeed, even before there was any notion of the elements having atomic structure. The older metals were of particular interest to alchemy, the pseudoscience that is forerunner of modern chemistry, because its practitioners believed that the base metals (lead, iron, tin, and copper, for example) could be transformed into a noble metal (gold or silver). While all of these metals retain their native English names (all of which go back to Old English), the official symbols for these elements all give a nod to their Latin names: Au for gold (Latin aurum, which has an English cognate in aureole), Pb for Lead (Latin plumbum, which has an English cognate in plumb, Fe for iron (Latin ferrum, which has an English cognate in ferrous, and so forth. The interactive periodic table here provides hyperlinks that enable you to explore each of the elements and what lies behind their names.
The three elements that end in –gen (oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen) are all relative old-timers in the table and they represent models of element naming: analysis of their origin tells us something significant about the element. The –gen, in each case, is from Greek -genēs "born of, producing" and the other part of the element name arises based on what reactions with the element produce: hydro- from the Greek for "water," from the fact that water is produced by combustion of hydrogen; oxy- from Greek for "acid," since oxygenation yields acids; and nitro- from Greek for niter, or saltpeter, as we usually call it today. No other element names have this handy formula, but a group of elements, the halogens (see column 17 in the table) are so named because in combination they produce salts (the hal- part is from Greek for "salt").
Satisfying consistency in the table gets a bit hard to find after these patterns are exhausted, but nearly every element name has an informative story behind it, and the unpacking of them provides insight into word formation, etymology, history, and chemistry. Consider, for example:
- Phosphorus, whose Greek roots mean "light-bringing," and also designating the morning star. From the fact that some phosphoric compounds often glow in the dark (in other words, they are phosphorescent)
- Mercury, named after the Roman deity who was the messenger of the Gods. The OED suggests "This use probably arose from analogy between the fluidity of the metal at room temperature and the rapid motion held to be characteristic of the classical deity." The symbol for Mercury is Hg, from its earlier Greek-inspired name, hydrargyrum, which resolves to "water silver," or liquid silver, or quicksilver—the native English name for Mercury.
- Cobalt, from German Kobold, goblin. To quote from the fascinating OED etymology: "the ore of cobalt having been so called by the miners on account of the trouble which it gave them, not only from its worthlessness (as then supposed), but from its mischievous effects upon their own health and upon silver ores in which it occurred, effects due mainly to the arsenic and sulphur with which it was combined."
- Krypton, from Greek for "hidden". It's odorless, transparent, and rare, and thus hard to detect. It is the inspiration for that other Krypton, Superman's home planet, and kryptonite, the fictitious substance that is Superman's Achilles heel.
Like the table itself, exploration of the words in the table is a deep source of knowledge and information, useful to chemists and wordlovers alike.