Naming of chemical elements
Chemical elements may be named from various sources: sometimes based on the person who discovered it, or the place it was discovered. Some have Latin or Greek roots deriving from something related to the element, for example some use to which it may have been put.
All 118 discovered elements are confirmed and have a formal name and symbol, as decided by IUPAC. The last four names and symbols were added on November 28, 2016. Incidentally, at this moment there are no unconfirmed discoveries and all seven periods (rows) of the periodic table are completed.
Element names can refer to:
- a mythological concept or character (including an astronomical object),
- a mineral or similar substance,
- a place, or geographical region,
- a property of the element, or
- a scientist.
Chemical elements are sometimes named after people, especially the synthetic elements discovered (created) after ca. 1940. However, very few are named after their discoverers, and even fewer are named after living people. The element seaborgium is named after Glenn Seaborg, who was alive at the time; and oganesson is named after Yuri Oganessian (still living as of January 2018).
Many of the transuranic elements are named after recipients of the Nobel Prize, including:
The transuranic element americium is indirectly named (via the continents The Americas) after Amerigo Vespucci
Lecoq de Boisbaudran, who named the element gallium after his native land of France (from Latin Gallia meaning Gaul) denied that the element's naming was for a pun on his own name ("le coq" means "the rooster" in French, as does "gallus" in Latin).
Places on earth
Some chemical elements are named after places on the planet earth.
Five are named after currently existing countries – polonium (named after Poland), francium and gallium (named after France), nihonium (named after Japan) and germanium (named after Germany). Only gallium and germanium are stable and occur in more than trace amounts on Earth. Americium is named after the Americas, in analogy with europium being named after Europe.
Other elements are named after modern states or cities, including berkelium, californium and tennessine named respectively after the American city of Berkeley and the states of California and Tennessee where they were discovered; and dubnium and moscovium, similarly named after Russia's Dubna and Moscow.
Several places in Scandinavia have elements named after them:
- Yttrium, terbium, erbium, and ytterbium are all named for the Swedish village of Ytterby, where their ores were first found.
- Holmium is named after Holmia, Latin for the Swedish capital Stockholm.
- Scandium comes from the Latin word for Scandinavia.
- Thulium is from the Ancient Greek word for the remote Arctic land that the Romans called Ultima Thule.
A number of other elements are named after classical words for various places.
- Ruthenium is from the Latin name for the region including Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia.
- Lutetium is named after Lutetia, the Latin name for Paris.
- Hafnium is named for Hafnia, the Latin name for Copenhagen.
- Copper's name comes from an Old English word derived from the Latin name for the island of Cyprus.
The naming of elements from astronomical objects stems from the ancient association of metals with the various planets and their gods, as follows: mercury with the fast-moving planet Mercury; copper with the brilliant, beautiful planet Venus; iron with Mars (named for the Roman god of war); tin with Jupiter (named for the Roman king of the gods); and lead with the slow-moving planet Saturn (named for the ancient, slow god who was the father of Jupiter). The Sun and the Moon were associated with gold and silver, respectively.
A few other elements are directly named for astronomical bodies, including planets, dwarf planets, a few asteroids, our star, our planet, and our Moon. Uranium, neptunium, plutonium, cerium, and palladium were named after Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Ceres, and Pallas respectively, which were at the time of their naming all considered to be planets. (Today, Pluto and Ceres are considered to be dwarf planets, and Pallas is considered to be an asteroid.)
The name of the element selenium came from the Greek word for the Moon (Σελήνη, Selene). The name helium comes from the Greek word for the Sun (Ἢλιος, Helios). This is because the first evidence for helium was in distinctive, heretofore unknown spectroscopic lines from the Sun; these could not be explained by any of the known elements in the 1870s.
In 1979, IUPAC published recommendations for their systematic element names to be used for yet unnamed or undiscovered elements as a placeholder, until the discovery of the element is confirmed and a permanent name is decided on. The recommendations are mostly ignored among scientists, who simply call these elements by their atomic number, for example "element 119" (instead of "ununennium"), with the symbol of (119) or even simply 119.
Once an element has been named, a one-, or two-letter symbol must be ascribed to it so it can be easily referred to in such contexts as the periodic table. The first letter is always capitalised. While the symbol is often a contraction of the element's name, it may sometimes not match the element's name when the symbol is based on non-English words; examples include "Pb" for lead (from plumbum in Latin) or "W" for tungsten (from Wolfram in German). Elements which have only temporary systematic names are given temporary three-letter symbols (e.g. Uue for ununennium, the undiscovered element 119).
The naming of the synthetic elements dubnium and seaborgium generated a significant amount of controversy, referred to as the Transfermium Wars. The Americans wished to name element 105 hahnium, while the Russians preferred the name dubnium. The Americans also wished to name element 106 seaborgium. This naming dispute ran from the 1970s (when the elements were discovered) to the 1990s, when the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) created a tentative list of the element names for elements 104 to 109. The Americans, however, refused to agree with these names because seaborgium was not in the list. Thus, IUPAC reconsidered, and in 1996 named element 105 dubnium and element 106 seaborgium.
Alternative forms of an element, names indicating molecular structure, and names of compounds
When a pure element, comprising only one type of atom, nevertheless exists in multiple forms (allotropes) with different structure and properties, they are generally given different names; for example graphite and diamond are both forms of the element carbon. Even for elements such as nitrogen having only one stable allotrope, a name such as dinitrogen may be used to indicate its molecular structure N2 as well as its elemental composition. The naming of chemical compounds comprising more than one element is a complex subject, discussed at length in the article on chemical nomenclature.
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