Think back to high school chemistry. Many classrooms had a giant periodic table chart prominently displayed (among a host of cheesy chemical safety warning posters). Some unlucky students had to memorize the whole periodic table of elements, including the elements, their symbol, and atomic number. For some elements, the connection between the element and its symbol is intuitive. The symbol for oxygen is O, helium’s is He, and so on. But some seem downright random – iron is Fe, tin is Sn, and lead is Pb. In some cases, this is because an abbreviation is used for the symbol instead. But sometimes the explanation behind the elements’ chemical symbols has a much more interesting origin.
Why are the Greek or Latin names occasionally used for the symbols?
Modern Western science has been hugely influenced, historically, by Greek and Roman understandings of the natural world. From the medieval period until the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Latin was the language of choice for scientific writings due to its wide use throughout Europe and its status as a language of the educated. Knowing gold as aurum and silver as argentum is probably less strange to a European scientist in the 1600s.
It is also important to note that when the first periodic tables were being arranged and formulated in the 1700’s and 1800’s, it was very chic to mimic the Romans. Why? This was a time when many European nations were building empires and colonizing lands overseas. The Roman Empire was often considered the “ideal” empire and civilization in terms of culture and governance.
Latin names and naming conventions were seen as the height of civility, so many newly-discovered elements were given Latin-style names ending in “-um” or “-ium”. The Victorians were particularly fond of this. This goes to show that even after Latin was usurped by local vernaculars as the language of science, using Latin terms and styles was still very popular in Europe throughout the 19th century. Keeping this in mind, it isn’t shocking to see that European scientists often opted to use the element’s Latin names when determining their chemical symbol.
When you look at the Latin names of many elements, their corresponding symbol makes much more sense. As mentioned above, gold is aurum in Latin, so its symbol is Au. Silver was argentum, so it is Ag. Lead was known as plumbum, so its symbol is Pb.
Sometimes there are interesting little stories behind the Greek and Latin names of the elements, though. Copper’s symbol is Cu, which comes from the Latin word cuprum. This is an adulterated form of the phrase aes сyprium, meaning metal of Cyprus. During the Roman era, Cyprus was the primary source of copper. Antimony, an element that is used in lead-acid batteries and bullets, has a chemical symbol of Sb. This comes from the Latin word stibium, which actually refers to an antimony alloy used for eyeliner. Mercury’s symbol is Hg based on its Latin name hydrargyrum, which is an altered version of the Greek compound word hydrargyros meaning water-silver.
But there are a few German-based symbols, too
Even though Latin naming conventions remained popular throughout the 1800s, German became a dominating language of the scientific discourse in the 19th century. Germany was spoken throughout central Europe and many people living around German-speaking regions themselves had some handle on the language, too, especially if they were formally educated. For that reason, a few elements have symbols derived from their German name.
Tungsten’s symbol is W, which comes from the word wolfram, which originally came from the term wolf rahm or “wolf soot” in English. After World War I, many places in the United States banned the use of the German language. It is likely that others around the world weren’t so keen on using and learning it, either. World War II didn’t help the case for the widespread use of the language, either. For these reasons (among many others) German fell out of favor as a prominent language in the scientific discourse and thus was no longer used in the naming of future elements.
Who names new elements?
These days, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) determines the names and chemical symbols of newly-discovered elements. The IUPAC is a large organization that promotes advancements in the field of chemistry. It claims many thousands of chemists as members.
When a new element is discovered, IUPAC suggests names and opens up a period for public comment in order to allow people to add their own suggestions and input. Interestingly, they follow the Victorian precedent and tack on a “-um” or “-ium” to the end of the element name. However, IUPAC does tend to allow for a more creative set of names. Rather than rely on old Greek or Latin (or German) terms, IUPAC is more enthusiastic to name elements for famous scientists or the geographical location where the element was discovered. For instance, the element with the atomic number 113 is called nihonium (symbol: Nh) from the Japanese word for Japan. As long as the IUPAC exists, its probably safe to say that any newly-discovered elements will have symbols that closely correspond with their names.
If you learned about the periodic table any time in the 1990s or early 2000s, you probably remember a bunch of elements with three-letter symbols and names with lots of u’s, like ununtrium (symbol: Uut) and ununseptium (symbol: Uus). These were elements with temporary names and symbols. They had been discovered in the lab, but had yet to been formally named by the IUPAC. The IUPAC came up with a table of rules for determining an element’s systematic or temporary name before it has a formal name. These rules are based on the element’s atomic number, which determine the rather lengthy systematic name.
As of late 2016, all discovered elements have been formally given official names and symbols. Still, new elements are being discovered more often than you think. Next time IUPAC opens up the period for public comment on a new element’s name, try offering up a suggestion. This could be the year of Boaty McBoatfacium!
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Katie Blank is a Content Moderator and staff writer for Sporcle. She is also a PhD student studying South Asian history. Her guilty pleasures include binge-watching The Office and going to every metal concert she can.