Issue 209, page 1

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We were discussing nitrogen the other day. Not the gaseous element, you understand, just the word. The Greek-derived suffix –gen means “begetter of” so the other –gen elements are easy to understand. When it burns, hydrogen forms water (Greek hydros) hence hydro-gen (“begetter of water”). Similarly oxygen reacts with metals to form acidic oxides (Greek oxy-, “sharp, sour”). So we were hardly surprised to discover that nitrogen is named for its ability to “beget” nitre. What did surprise us was the identity of nitre. Or should we say identities?

Nitre has something of a split personality. Its usual meaning “potassium nitrate,” also calledsaltpeter saltpeter, but the original meaning of nitre was “naturally occurring sodium carbonate,” a mineral compound which has no connection to nitrogen whatever. It does, however, have the alternative name of natron and this, presumably is where the confusion with nitre crept in.

Note that natron is a sodium compound. This helps explain why the chemical symbol for sodium is Na, not So. The word sodium was invented by the English chemist Michael Faraday who extracted the element from soda.

Saltpeter (or saltpetre in the British spelling) is one of those fascinating words which carry evidence of a misunderstanding. In Middle English it was salpetre (presumably from medieval Latin sal petrae or “salt of stone”) but the first syllable of this colorless crystalline substance was just too similar to salt for English-speakers to leave undefiled.

One of the simplest nitrogen-containing substances is ammonia, which gets its name from the main ingredient in smelling salts – sal ammoniac. (Funny, you’d think it would be the other way around, wouldn’t you?) Sal ammoniac gets its name from an area of Lybia called Ammonia (Latin, “salt of Ammonia” – note that capital letter). The region took its name from a famous temple of Jupiter Ammon – a syncretic deity who combined aspects of the Roman Jupiter and the AmmoniteEgyptian god Ammon. The substance ammonia (not the place Ammonia) was also known as spirits of hartshorn as it was once distilled from the hoofs and horns of animals. It is a strong alkali and, due to its origins was known as animal alkali as distinct from vegetable alkali (potash) and from mineral alkali (soda).

This brings us to the term alkali itself. From the Arabic al-kali “the ashes” it neatly parallels the English word potash (literally “ashes from a pot”). Again we see the origin of a disparity between the name of an element (potassium, from potash) and its symbol – in this case K, from kali (“ashes”).

And before we leave the Egyptian god Ammon, we should mention another etymological curiosity. You see, according to Egyptian belief, Ammon had the body of a man but the head of a ram. And when the inhabitants of ancient North Africa found certain fossils which curled in a flat spiral they said that they were the discarded horns of the god Ammon. For that matter, so do we, in a manner of speaking. We call them ammonites.

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