Issue 210, page 1

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More elements

Our recent journey into the name nitrogen turned up a lot of other chemical etymologies that got us looking at some other elements, and we must say that they range from the pedestrian to the bizarre. Take, for instance, the series of man-made elements with atomic weights from 113 to 118. Their names are ununtrium, ununquadium, ununpentium, ununhexium, ununseptium, ununoctium and are hybrids concocted from the Latin unus (“one”), various Greek numbers and the standard Latinate suffix -ium. These mind-numbingly unimaginative names therefore mean “one-one-three-ium,” “one-one-four-ium,” “one-one-five-ium,” etc.

Many elements take their names from places. There are two elements named after continents, americium (America) and europium (Europe), and several named after countries. France appears in the periodic table twice - francium is obvious but there’s also gallium (from Gallia, Latin for Gaul). Polonium is clearly named for Poland, but it’s a little harder to spot Russia in ruthenium (from medieval Latin, Ruthenia).  Another easily overlooked allusion to a country is found in copper, which takes its name from Cyprus, a source of copper in ancient times.

There are some states, too: rhenium (from the Rheinland, Germany), hassium (from Latin for the German state name Hessen) and californium (do we have to spell it out?). We might also have had alabamium and illinium (for Alabama and Illinois) if scientists hadn’t decided to call them astatine (from Greek for "unstable") and promethium (from Prometheus*), instead. Then there are the cities. Magnesium is from Magnesia in ancient Greece, thulium, found in Sweden, was named after Thule, a mythical land in the far north, thought by some today to actually  have been Trondheim. Hafnium and holmium take their names from Hafnia and Holmia, medieval Latin for Copenhagen and Stockholm, respectively. Paris is represented by lutetium (from Latin Lutetia, the name of an ancient city on the site of modern Paris).  And who would have guessed that strontium is named for a village in Argyllshire, Scotland?  That village is called Strontian, where a strontium compound was found in a lead mine. Surprisingly, the place with the most elements to its name is a small town in Sweden - Ytterby has given us ytterbium , yttrium and terbium.

It seems only logical to name an element after one of its distinctive properties. The dense element tungsten has a nice, straightforward descriptive name. It means “heavy stone” in Swedish (tung “heavy” + sten ”stone”). Elements come in many colors, hence we have chlorine (Greek chloros, “yellowish-green”), cesium (Latin caesius, “sky-blue”), and indium because it’s indigo blue. But what’s up with chromium? It’s from the Greek chroma, “color.” Sure, it’s got a color but which one (it is actually named thus because its compounds come in several different colors)? We might raise a similar objection to osmium, from Greek osme (“odor”) . Is it, for instance a pleasant odor or foul (Smithson Tennant, who named this element, characterized the odor as "pungent and peculiar")? No such question arises with bromine. It is from the Greek bromos, “stench”.

Expect more, even stranger, element names to be examined next issue.

*"We propose, therefore, the name ‘prometheum’ (symbol Pm) for element 61 after Prometheus,..who stole fire from heaven for the use of mankind... This name...symbolizes the dramatic way in which the element may be produced in quantity as a result of man's harnessing of the energy of nuclear fission."  From Chemical & Engineering News, August 9, 1948, Jacob A. Marinsky and Lawrence E. Glendenin (via the OED).

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