Sunday, 25 September 2016

An Etymological Chemistry Lesson

Remember the school laboratory and our introduction to the noble or rare gases? Germany's Hugo Erdmann first coined the term Edelgas or 'noble gas' to indicate their extremely low level of reactivity. Some may recall these being referred to as 'inert', but this is now known to be untrue as some have been known to form compounds, albeit only under very unlikely conditions. These are also referred to as 'rare gases', this is also a misnomer as argon alone amounts to almost 1% of the Earth's atmosphere, albeit the remainder very much smaller amounts.

As we would expect the names coined for these gases are very recent, chemistry being a very recent science. There are but six noble gases and, in alphabetical order, each has an interesting reason for its name.

Argon is a Modern Latin word taken directly from the Greek argon. It is the neuter of argos, itself meaning 'lazy, idle'. This is a compound of a 'without' and ergon 'work'.

Helium may be the simplest to see as it is derived from the Greek helios or 'sun'. The reason for this is simply as it was first detected in the spectrum of the light from the sun, this during an eclipse of August 18th 1868 by astronomer Sir Joseph Lockyer and chemist Sir Edmund Frankland. Interestingly it was not isolated on this planet until 1895, and until then thought to be an alkali metal which is why the discoverers used the suffix '-ium'.

Krypton is another from the Greek, where krypton, the neuter of kryptos, was chosen by discoverers Sir William Ramsay and Morris W. Travers in 1898 for it means 'hidden'. Thus it has the same derivation as 'crypt' and both 'hidden', the gas as it remained undiscovered for so long.

Neon was also discovered and named by Sir William Ramsay and Morris W. Travers. They chose the Greek neon as it means 'new' and, in 1898, they had indeed just discovered it and thus could not be any newer. As both neon and helium were discovered by the same two scientists in the same year, it is only because neon was discovered first that we are not seeing advertising in krypton lights.

Radon is the heaviest gaseous element. This from the radioactive decay of radium discovered in 1918. It is derived from 'radium', with the addition of '-on' to indicate a noble gas, and ultimately from the Latin radius meaning 'ray' as it emits energy in the form of rays, as identified by Marie Curie. In France and Germany it has been known as niton from the Latin nitens meaning 'shining'.

Xenon owes its name to discoverer Sir William Ramsay, again in 1898, where he looked once more to Greek and chose xenon, the neuter of xenos meaning 'foreign, strange'.

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