Sunday, 9 October 2016

Elemental Etymology

Having looked at the origins of the names of some elements, such as the noble gases and metals, here is a look at the some of the others of the periodic table. I have deliberately left out those having more recent and therefore quite obvious meanings - thinking of such as californium and einsteinium - and opted for those which would only be understood by those with a reasonable knowledge of Greek and/or Latin.

Boron was originally extracted from boracic acid by Sir Humphry Davy who called it boracium. Later he changed it to 'boron', taking the first syllable from the source borax and adding the suffix simply because it resembled carbon.

Bromine was discovered by the French chemist Antoine Jerard Balard and initially called 'muride' but eventually named from the Greek bromos 'stench' with the chemical suffix '-ine'.

Carbon was officially named by Lavoisier in 1787 as charbone, this from the Latin carbo 'charcoal' and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root ker meaning 'heat, fire, burn'.

Chlorine is another named by Sir Humphry Davy, the English chemist opting for the chemical suffix '-ine' preceded by the Greek khloros or 'pale green'. Schoolchildren everywhere will be delighted to learn the early name of 'dephlogisticated marine acid' lasted little more than thirty years.

Fluorine another '-ine' named by Sir Humphry Davy, who chose to show he had found it in the mineral fluorspar and an old chemistry term indicating minerals 'useful as fluxes in smelting'.

Hydrogen was isolated and named by four French scientists. From the Greek hydor meaning 'water' and French gene or 'producing', as it readily produces water when exposed to oxygen.

Iodine was another discovered and named by Sir Humphry Davy. Here he took the chemical suffix '-ine' and preceded it with the Greek ioeides 'the colour violet'. Undoubtedly both the colour and the flower have a common root in pre-Indo-European language.

Nitrogen has, once again, the French suffix gene meaning 'producing', it is derived from the Greekgen or 'giving birth to'. Named by French chemist Jena Antoine Chaptal in 1790, the first element came from the Greek nitron or 'sodium carbonate' and ultimately Egptian ntr and a word for the native soda. Note earlier nitrogen had been known as 'mephitic air' and Lavoisier called it 'azote', where 'azo' is still used as a prefix denoting the presence of nitrogen.

Oxygen again uses the suffix from the French meaning 'producing', the first syllable is Greek oxys 'sharp, acid' and which has also given us 'acrid'.

Phosphorus was named by the early 17th century, its name coming from the Greek for the morning star and literally translating as 'torchbearer'. This comes from the Greek phaos 'light' and pherein 'to carry'.

Silicon was coined by British chemist Thomas Thomson in 1817, he deriving this from silica, from which it was isolated. The term 'silica' was named from the Latin silex meaning 'flint, pebble'.

Sulphur may be the traditional preferred British spelling but, as this suggests a Greek origin, is wrong and today the US spelling of 'sulfur' is becoming increasingly popular. The term came to English from Old French soufre and ultimately from the Latin for 'to burn'.

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