How do elements get their names - Chemistry in the World - Why Is Milk White?: & 200 Other Curious Chemistry Questions (2013)

Why Is Milk White?: & 200 Other Curious Chemistry Questions (2013)

8. Chemistry in the World

How do elements get their names?

Some elements were named in ancient times, and we don’t know the exact origins. Gold, silver, copper, lead, tin, iron, zinc, and carbon were all known to the ancients, and their names come from attributes such as their color, where they were originally found, or what their uses were. The word carbon comes from the Latin word for “coal” and gold comes from the Latin word for “yellow.”

Other elements were discovered by chemists, who gave them names that we have some history for. Hydrogen means “water maker” because when it burns, we get water. It was discovered by Henry Cavendish but named by Antoine Lavoisier in 1783. Helium was first discovered by its spectral lines in the sun and was named after the Greek word for the sun.

Potassium was discovered in 1807 by Humphrey Davy and named after the material it was extracted from—potassium hydroxide, or potash, which was literally pot ash, the ashes that remain in a pot after burning vegetable matter.

Other elements were named after countries or continents: francium, polonium, europium, gallium, germanium, and americium. Some were named after people: rutherfordium, seaborgium, bohrium, meitnerium, roentgenium, copernicium, curium, fermium, einsteinium, mendelevium, nobelium, and lawrencium. Uranium, neptunium, and plutonium were named for planets. Palladium was named after an asteroid, which was named for a Greek goddess. Other gods gave thorium, selenium, and mercury their names, although the last may have been named for a planet that was named for a god.

Some elements are named for the towns, universities, or laboratories where they were discovered: berkelium, dubnium, hassium, darmstadtium, hafnium, terbium, ytterbium, erbium, yttrium, and californium.