Very Top Five... Ways to name a chemical element

Monday, 5 October 2009
So you’ve discovered a new chemical element and are trying to think of a good name for it? Well, it isn’t all laughs and fun, despite what you might think of the occasional joke names like ‘Uranium’.

You might want to pick a name which says something about the properties of the element, like the greenish-yellow gas chlorine, which unsurprisingly means “greenish-yellow” in Greek. The same logic of “give-it-a-name-that-describes-what-it-is” cannot be applied to either bohrium or boron, both of which only encourage proletarian anti-chemistry sniggering.

Oh, and the general rule is to whack a classical languages suffix on the end, usually ‘–ium’ but sometimes ‘–us,’ or ‘-on’. This makes it sound instantly pompous, complicated and alien to the layman’s sensibilities, which scientists like to encourage. Otherwise you might think science was accessible, which just won’t do at all.

Anyway, there are broadly five main ways for coming up with a name for a chemical element. Let’s get elemental:

5. After a place.

There are 25 elements named after places on Earth, and this has been a popular choice particularly in recent years. This is because scientists like almost nothing better than making a big fuss over whose right it is to name a new element, so it is generally easier to try and get people on side to name it after the city, country or continent where it was discovered rather than really push that campaign to name it after your favourite 80’s pop group. For example, europium is almost certainly named after the continent and not the band.

More examples in this place names category include Ytterbium, which is named after the Swedish village Ytterby; Yttrium, named after Ytterby; Terbium, named after Ytterby; And Erbium, also named after Ytterby. It’s a popular choice. Because obviously who doesn’t first think of little Ytterby when they come to name a new element?

4. From Mythology

Is there anything a scientist loves more than lording it over the proles with his fancy know-how and learnedness? I checked; there isn’t.

So, your typical scientist, when faced with the challenge of naming something very important, will reach for his big book of difficult and old words and try to come up with an obscure little joke that his colleagues can snigger at sycophantically, ‘cos they get the reference, partnered with the internal warmth that comes from knowing that you don’t.

Hence promethium, named after Promethius, who stole fire from the gods. Because promethium glows in the dark, this is very funny and clever.

Mercury is named after the eponymous messenger of the gods. He was jolly fast, and elemental mercury, since it is a liquid at room temperature, runs. Get it?

And Tantalum, named after Tantalus, who was condemned by the gods to stand in water that would sink out of reach when he tried to drink. Now, if you also know that tantalum does not react with water, I’m sure you can start to see how hilarity may ensue.

And so it goes…

3. From deconstruction.

Just give it a name that says what the element does, or describes a fundamental property of it. Obviously put it in Greek, Latin or even Arabic (sulfra means yellow, and sulfur is yellow), otherwise people will think that chemistry is easy, which is to be actively discouraged, as was discussed above. Calling an element ‘Yellow,’ simply because it is yellow, makes you sound about five years old. So sulfur it is.

Oxygen and hydrogen were named in this way. They respectively mean ‘to beget acid’ and ‘to beget water’. Retrospectively, it is rather hilarious to notice that the science guys got it wrong, and hydrogen is actually the component common to all acids, not oxygen, so they should really be named the other way round. Woops. You dropped the ball there, science guys.

Radium is named this way too; ray, from ray as in death-ray, and –ium, meaning complicated and sciency, with a cheeky wee ‘d’ sandwiched in the middle to give it that hard vowel sound to add more badassery than it would have if it were just rayium. (Radon was named in exactly the same way (with –on as the second most sciency suffix they could come up with), and Actinium is also from the Greek word for ray, so sometimes scientists can be really unoriginal.)

2. From how it was found.

Is your classical education so lacking that your attempt to deliver classy classical allusion would surely lead to a nomen nudum? Can’t you tell your Ares from your arse?

Don’t fear, there is a simpler way to come up with a name. Just name it after the types of place it was first found, or even the apparatus you used to find it. Did you find the element in the sun? Then call it Helium, after the Greek god of the sun Helios. If you first saw it as a band of colour in a spectroscope, then name it after the colour. Was it red? Call it Rubidium. Was it Indigo? Call it Indium. Was it a pleasant sky blue? Call it Caesium. Easy peasy.

1. After a person.

11 elements are named after people (More if you count mythological people), and it is the most popular choice in these days of international scientific squabbling and backstabbing co-operation. Naming stalemates are partially resolved by different research groups simply ignoring each other and proclaiming their choice of name as loudly as possible, but everyone gets hoarse sooner or later, and universal names have to be agreed.

So for example, most everyone can agree that Einstein was a jolly good chap, and so we ended up with an element called Einsteinium, (using the old rule of add –ium for instant elementality, and just when you thought “Einstein” was as sciency a name as you could get.)

Curium is named after two people; fortunately both called Curie (Pierre and Marie).

And good old mendelevium, named after Dmitiri Mendelev, who came up with the idea of a periodic table in the first place, but had to wait ‘til after he was dead for one of the elements to be named after him, number 101. That showed some restraint on his part, I think. After all, he could easily have ‘done a Ytterby,’ and left us with a legacy of Mendeliums, Mendeleviums and Dmitriums. So thanks Mendelev, for your restraint, for your humility, and for your periodic table of elements.


Ewan said...

Fantastic stuff. Where is Ytterby and what's it for? And here's another stupid question. When the Romans named some of the 'easy' elements like iron or gold, did they name them after their home towns? Is there a wee Roman village lost to history called Aurumdumninium?

Very Top Five said...

Ytterby is an old mine, where all those elements (and four more) were first discovered, so it's perhaps not quite so humorously ludicrous as I've suggested.

The Romans called gold Aurum, which means "shining dawn". The AngloSaxons corrupted the name to gold from ghel, which means yellow or bright. So gold fits neatly into category 3.

Iron's got some crazy etymology going on, and possible means "The Gods" in Etruscan, since it's likely they first found iron in meteorites. That's category 2, I reckon.

Metals are particularly crazily named: Cobalt is named after the evil goblins (Kobolds) who stole a mine's silver and replaced it with posionous cobalt. But the further back in time you go to an element's discovery and naming, the more the names become tautological, and just mean "the metal that is that metal."

Ewan said...

Fascinating stuff, i'm gonna look at iron differently from now on. The Etruscan's were pretty astute, they were likely to have been the first to have come up with the idea of combining heaven and hell for maximum obedience when the Romans became a threat. Didn't work for them though...

Polly said...

Very informative post. Next time I discover a chemical element I'll think twice before naming it.

Nanodance said...

I am glad that you have published this guide. It will prevent the next element from being named Tostidosium or Chick-Fil-Aium.

julochka said...

i wonder if platinum is named after my hometown...hmmm.

is that stuff about Ytterby true? i think maybe those elements must have been added since i was in school. it is starting to be a long time ago, after all.

Very Top Five said...

Yup, the Ytterby stuff is all absolutely true. (Not unless you went to school before 1878 ;) )

Platinum is confusingly named after the spanish word for silver, plata.