Argon is the atomic couch potato

The recent naming of elements 110, 111, and 112 on the periodic table got me thinking. Not about chemistry, but about the history of other elemental labels.

Certain ones, like einsteinium and the new copernicium, are clearly namesakes (which the New York Times mistakenly capitalized). Other elements, like Americium, Berkelium, Californium are placesakes. But after the obvious origins are ticked off, logic behind the names for life’s building blocks get fuzzier, (unless you happen to know Sanskrit, Greek and Latin). I set out to find the stories behind the elemental names and while I was at it, I unearthed why some elements have seemingly unrelated symbols, e.g. Au for gold.

My favorite stories:

Argon (Ar) is derived from the Greek word argos which means lazy. Argon was not observed chemically combining itself with other elements and was thus shamed as the atomic couch potato.

Two elements, cobalt (Co) and nickel (Ni), were named for their evil nature as assessed by miners. Both names have German roots. Cobalt is adapted from the German word for goblin. Historically, the cobalt mineral familiar to Germans contained arsenic. This caused health problems for miners and the ore also didn’t easily yield its metals. Nickel stems from a German word for deceptive little spirit because its mineral form resembled copper ore but actually contained no copper.

Why the incongruent symbols?

  • Gold – The Latin word for both gold metal and color is aurum. The Latin goddess of dawn, Aurora, is named such for the golden sheen of early morning. Thus Latin etymology lends elemental gold the symbol Au.
  • Iron – Ferrum, Latin for firmness, is the root of iron’s Fe.
  • Mercury – The Greek word hydragyrium translates to liquid silver and is shortened to mercury’s Hg.
  • Silver – Derived from similar Latin and Sanskrit’s words for bright (argentum and argunas), Ag symbolizes the luster of silver metal.

Favorite story behind an incongruent symbol:

The two-letter abbreviation of antimony is Sb. Antimony is adapted from Greek words meaning not alone because it was discovered molecularly cozied up to other elements. However, the element was originally named stibium. Long ago its mineral form was used for darkening Greek eye features like lashes and brows. In Greek, stibi means mark. So it turns out ancient mascara managed to sneak into modern laboratory lingo.

Psyched to learn more? You can find a brief history every element on The National Nuclear Data Center’s website, from which I’ve simply extracted a favored few. The link doesn’t include stories for the most recent elements though, since it was last updated in 2004.


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