Elements isolated and identified in the comparatively modern era are, most often, named quite logically. However those known to the ancients were known for very different reasons, albeit they had no concept of the idea of an element in a scientific sense. The earliest isolated elements were metals and named for what they saw and, as we shall see, they saw yhings in a rather different light.
Cadmium is a bluish-white metal discovered in 1871 by the German Friedrich Strohmeyer. It is borrowed from the Modern Latin cadmia, with the addition of the metallic suffix ‘-ium’, and itself used by the ancient naturalists for every earth and oxide they found. It comes from the Greek kadmeia meaning ‘earth’ and a name derived from the legendary founder of Boeotian Thebes ‘Cadmus’ and known as such as cadmium was first found in the area around Thebes.
Caesium is a rare alkaline metal, hence the suffix ‘-ium’, discovered and named in 1861 by scientists Bunsen and Kirchhoff. It was named from the Latin caesius meaning ‘blue-grey’ for the spectrum showing the presence of caesium is identified, and indeed was discovered, by two prominent blue lines.
Calcium and another metallic ‘-ium’ coined by Sir Humphrey Davy, this coined in 1808. He borrowed the first syllable from the Latin calx meaning ‘limestone’, this also the origin of the word ‘chalk’.
Aluminium is a an abundant metal and one which epitomises the quote from George Bernard Shaw when he said “Two nations divided by a common language”, for the name ‘aluminium’ is used on the eastern shores of the Atlantic, while on the western side the name is ‘aluminum’. The difference may be but one letter yet with the emphasis is on differing syllables it makes the two names sound very different. In Britain many find the American version difficult to accept and yet (sorry Britain) when first isolated by Sir Humphrey Davy in 1808, he did refer to it as ‘aluminum’. However four years later he changed his mind, with a little encouragement from fellow scientists, and added the ‘i’ to make it ‘aluminium’. This made sense as the suffix ‘-ium’ is used for other metallic elements and thus the British version (sorry America) makes more sense. To further complicate matters Davy’s original name was ‘alumium’. All three names come from the aluminium oxide, known by the Latin alumen, and derived from ‘alum’, itself defined as ‘a whitish mineral salt used as an astringent and a dye’. Alum comes from Old French alum and Latin alumen literally meaning ‘bitter salt’ and associated with the Greek aludoimos and thus amazingly having a common root with ‘ale’.
Barium is another metallic element known since ancient times, albeit only as it was present in the mineral barytes. Not until Sir Humphrey Davy isolated barium in 1808 was it named, although clearly this is derived from the mineral where ‘barytes’ comes from the Greek for ‘heavy spar’. The Greek barys or ‘heavy’ can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European gwere also meaning ‘heavy’ – the latter also the root of the word ‘grave’ - used as an adjective, not a noun.
Chromium isolated in 1807 by Fourcroy and Hauy it was named from the French chrome, itself from the Greek chroma meaning ‘colour’ and aptly, for the compounds are often identified by their colours.
Nickel was identified and named in 1754 by Swedish mineralogist Axel von Cronstedt, an abbreviation of Swedish kopparnickel literally meaning ‘copper-coloured ore’. The Swedes translated this from the German Kupfernickel or ‘copper demon’, so-called as its colour suggested copper yet contained none. Here the alternative name for the devil himself, Old Nick, has a common origin.
Platinum was named by the Spanish, it comes from platina referring to ‘sheet of metal’. As it was thought to resemble silver the Spaniards thought it simply inferior silver, hence the name.
Magnesium here the metallic suffix ‘-ium’ follows the ‘magnesia’, itself the Greek referring to the ‘loadstone’. Here it gets its name from Magnesia, a region of Thessaly inhabited by the Magnetes people whose name has never been explained. What we do know is the metal shares an etymology with ‘magnet’.
Lead comes from the Germanic loudhorn and related to Lot meaning ‘weight’. Earlier usage is unclear, although it seems likely to have referred to ‘weight’ or ‘density’ in some respect.
Tin is from the Proto-Germanic tinom but here the trail ceases and this word is unknown outside the Germanic family. Early references, such as Pliny’s plumbum album or ‘white lead’, are due to the mistaken belief tin was nothing more than silver tainted with lead.
Zinc has been known for millennia, the name derived from the Germanic zint ‘prong, point’ and referring to the pointed shape of the crystals after smelting. Here we can trace the word back to Proto-Indo-European denk meaning ‘to bite’
Mercury is famously the fluid metal, also one of the seven metals known to the ancients as the bodies terrestrial and linked to astrology and alchemy. The Greek name of hydrargyros means ‘liquid silver’ and has also given us the chemical symbol Hg.
Gold has been known since prehistory, the term coming to English from Proto-Germanic ghl-to and derived from the Proto-Indo-European ghel ‘to shine’ – the same root as ‘glass’.
Silver, like gold, has been known since prehistory and can be traced through Germanic languages to somewhere around Asia Minor where Akkadian sarpu meant ‘silver’, coming from sarapu ‘to refine, smelt’.
Copper would have been one of the earliest mined metals and, as a word, it comes to English from the Proto-Germanic kupar. Ultimately this can be traced to the Latin cuprum, itself from Greek Kyprios meaning ‘Cyprus’ as it had been originally mined on that island. Note the original Latin for ‘copper’ had been aes but this was soon used for the alloy with tin ‘bronze’, eventually coming to English as ‘ore’.
Iron is another of ancient origins, coming to English through Celtic isarnon and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European isero meaning ‘powerful’ and also used in the sense of ‘holy’.