The periodic table can often seem senseless. Chemical symbols often bear no semblance to an element’s English name, and as one ventures through the lanthanides and actinides, even the names themselves appear to become progressively more absurd. Californium anyone?
Yet all 118 of the presently discovered elements from hydrogen to oganesson have stories hidden in their names. Sometimes an epithet discreetly details an element’s properties; sometimes it offers a fascinating glimpse into an element’s history.
As it is the first of the elements, let us start with hydrogen. From the French hydrogène it is a compound of two words, the Greek hydor (ὕδωρ) meaning water, and the French gène meaning producing. The German name, Wasserstoff is all the more explicit: literally ‘water stuff’. Although its etymology is perhaps not the most complex or intriguing, it is certainly revealing. While it is common knowledge that water (H2O) comprises two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom, it is somewhat anthropocentric to name the most abundant element in the universe after the property most apparently relevant to our existence.
The names of nitrogen, oxygen and carbon are similarly reductive. Nitrogen was so named when Jean-Antoine-Claude Chaptal found it to be present in nitrates, particularly nitre or potassium nitrate. His contemporary Antoine Lavoisier coined the alternative name azote, stemming from the Greek and meaning ‘no life’, as nitrogen is an asphyxiant. It is now the common name in most romance languages. Many other languages have developed their own names based on this same property, such as German (Stickstoff), Swedish (kväve), and Czech (dusík).
Oxygen meanwhile is a Hellenised form of the French principe acidifiant, owing to the fact that oxygen was originally considered an essential component of acid formation. Carbon on the other hand is derived from the Latin carbonem via the French charbone meaning coal.
More intriguing however are those names which describe an element’s discovery. Technetium’s name comes from the Greek tekhnētós (τεχνητός) meaning artificial or manmade, as it was the first element to be synthesised by humans. Promethium meanwhile evokes images of the (almost) eponymous Greek legend and pays homage to the fact that progress – here synthesising and discovering new elements as opposed to stealing fire – often requires great sacrifice.
Geographically inspired names are perhaps less inventive, but nonetheless offer some insight into their discovery. Scandinavia has the interesting accolade of being the region of the planet with the most elements named after it: erbium, hafnium, holmium, scandium, terbium, thulium, ytterbium and yttrium. All were first discovered by Swedes, except hafnium which was discovered by Dirk Coster and Georg von Hevesy in 1923, who named it after Copenhagen where they both lived. Thereupon it became the last stable element to be identified.
Argentina in contrast is the only country to have been named after an element: silver. It is an abbreviation of the Italian Terra Argentina or ‘land of silver’. The word itself was originally Latin, argentum, helping to explain its symbol Ag on the periodic table. Au, the similarly incongruous symbol for gold, has Latin origins as well, being an abbreviation of aurum.
Today, new element names continue to be Latinised to maintain consistency and continuity, but naming is now overseen by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). While ultimate authority still nominally rests in the hands of the discoverer, the IUPAC offers guidelines, and steps in when necessary.
One such case arose in the 1960s, in a controversy now termed the Transfermium Wars. Scientists from both the Soviet Union and United States claimed to have first discovered elements 104, 105, and 106. In attempting to work a compromise by allowing element 108 to be named hahnium by the American team, the IUAPC only drew more international scorn as a research team in Germany were undoubtedly the first to discover elements 107 to 109.
Moreover, the name hahnium referred to Otto Hahn who co-discovered nuclear fission with Lise Meitner. German scientists intended to name element 108 meitnerium as tribute to Meitner as she was overlooked by the Nobel Prize Committee in favour of Hahn. Naming elements after both of them simultaneously would have again overshadowed her accomplishments.
After a long process of committee hearings and tense compromises which involved rearranging the names of almost every element from 101 to 112, the present list was finalised. It was not only the pride of individual teams of scientists that was at stake in this dispute. The names chosen for elements reflect the values scientists wish to cement in history.
Whether it be righting a historical injustice in the case of meitnerium, highlighting the efforts of all scientists in the case of promethium, or simply paying homage to one’s place of birth. That ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ may well be true of Romeo, but in classifying elements nothing could be further from it. We have created from the building blocks of the universe a wondrous poetry. Today, the names of new elements are imbued with deep emotions, ranging from delight and enchantment to regret and melancholy. As Andrea Sella of University College London explains, ‘[t]here’s a tremendous romance to [naming elements]. Names are always important’.