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The Elements: Names and Origins - A-E

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The Elements: Names and Origins
Introduction | A to E | F to N | O to Z
Earth, air, fire and water - the elements before the discovery of a few more.



Actinium is a radioactive element, named after its radioactive property to decay emitting an alpha-particle. Aktis or aktinos is the Greek word for beam or ray. Actinium was, as we know today, erroneously identified and named in 1899 by André Debierne. The actual element was obtained in 1902 by Friedrich Oskar Geisel, who suggested it should be named emanium (from emanate). However, the original name was retained, because everybody was using it.



Aluminium was isolated by Friedrich Wöhler in 1827. The element was already known as one component of a base called alum, which in its turn had already been used by the ancient Greeks and Romans, who had come up with the names alum or alumen. Alumem is the Latin word for 'stringent' because of the substance's soapy taste. The name of the element is derived from alumen and the ending 'ium' to form 'aluminium'. This spelling is used everywhere except for the US, where the second 'i' was dropped in 1925.



Americium derives from the continent of America for two reasons: Firstly because it was first isolated and discovered there and secondly, this follows the same logic as with the (older) lanthanoid elements, where the homologue1 of the element is Europium. The name America is, in turn, derived from Vespucci's name Amerigo, but that's another story. Americium, a radioactive element, was identified by Glenn T Seaborg, Albert Ghiorso and co-workers in 1944.



Antimony was thought not to be found alone in nature. Its name is derived from this assumption: anti and monos are Greek for 'not' and (in this context) 'alone'. While it is true that the element is predominantly found as a component in many minerals, it is also found in its elementary form. The element has been known since antiquity. The abbreviation 'Sb' comes from the mineral stibnite (antimony sulfide) in which it occurs. Stibni is Greek for 'mark' because this mineral was used as a black pigment.



Argon derives from the Greek word argos meaning 'inactive'. Argon is a very inert, or inactive, gas, hence the name. Argon was isolated and characterised by John William Strutt (aka Baron Rayleigh) and William Ramsay in 1894 (cf. also The History Around the Noble Gases).



Arsenic has a deeper etymology. 'Arsenic' is derived from the Greek word arsenikon which in its turn is derived from the Persian word az-zarnikh with zar meaning 'gold'. Gold? Az-zarnikh probably means 'gold pigment' which in Latin is auripigmentum - this later mutated to orpiment. Yellow orpiment is the name of the yellow arsenic containing mineral (arsenic sulphide) which the Greeks, Romans and Persians used as a dye and for medicinal purposes. The element arsenic was probably isolated for the first time from this mineral in 1250 by Albert von Bollstadt (aka Albertus Magnus).



Astatine is an unstable, synthetic element. It was synthesised in 1940 by Dale Corson, Kenneth MacKenzie and Emilio Segre. The Greek word for 'unstable' is astatos. The ending 'ine' follows the naming pattern of the halogen group.



Barium is a relatively rare element. It was isolated for the first time by Sir Humphry Davy in 1808. Its existence was suspected before by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, as a heavier compound in certain minerals. Scheele therefore called this heavier component according to the Greek word for 'heavy': barys, from which 'barium' is derived.



Berkelium was synthesised by Glenn T Seaborg, Albert Ghiorso and co-workers by neutron bombardment of a certain Americium isotope. The experiment took place in 1949 in Berkeley (a small town) in California, hence the name. The naming also follows the pattern in the lanthanoid series, as its homologue is terbium (named after Ytterby, also a small town).



Beryllium is named after the gemstone containing beryllium, which forms well-shaped transparent crystals. These crystals were known of and used by the ancient Greeks as magnifying glasses. The Greeks called this material beryllos2. Beryllium was identified by Nicholas-Louis Vauquelin in 1797 and isolated in 1828 by Friedrich Wöhler. The element was also widely known as glucinium ('Gl') because of the sweet taste of many beryllium salts. This name was discarded in 1949 on the basis of 'prevailing usage'.



Bismuth occurs naturally, and was mentioned for the first time in a German document of 1472 as Wismuth. Bismuth, however, was not recognised as being an element itself and was often confused with tin or lead. Only in 1753 was it shown by Claude Geoffroy that Bismuth is indeed an element. Wismuth comes from the German words Wies and Mutung.3Mutung is the old designation for the place where a mineral occurs, or a mine. Wies (in the aforementioned 1472 document) refers to a place called in den Wiesen which was near a hill called Schneeberg in the Erz mountains, a southern part of eastern Germany. So Wismuth is originally the designation for the mineral found in that particular mine. Later on the 'W' mutated into a 'B' during the Latinisation of German documents, which is where the modern spelling comes from.



Boron takes its name from borax a boron-oxide also known in antiquity: the Arabic name for this compound was boraq meaning white. Boron was isolated for the first time in 1808 by Louis-Joseph Gay-Lussac and Louis Thénard, and in the same year, independently, by Sir Humphry Davy.



Bromine is a volatile, toxic, red liquid. And boy does it stink. The Greek word for stench is bromos. The isolation of bromine is credited to Antoine Jerôme Belard in 1826. Carl Löwig obtained bromine one year earlier in 1825. Löwig, however, didn't make his observations public.



Cadmium is named after the Greek designation kadmeia for calamine, the mineral in which cadmium occurs. The mineral in its turn is named after Kadmeia a fortress in Greece, which is named in honour of Cadmos the son of Agenor, a Phoenician king. Cadmium was isolated by Friedrich Stromayer in 1817.



Calcium is named after the Latin designation calx for the mineral lime, in which calcium occurs (limestone and quicklime, calcium carbonate and oxide respectively). It was obtained for the first time by Jöns Jakob Berzelius and Sir Humphry Davy in 1808.



Californium is rather obviously named after the state of California. 'California' itself was derived by the Spanish explorers from the name of the queen of an Amazon tribe that supposedly lived in the northern part of California - Queen Califia. California is where Glenn T Seaborg, Albert Ghiorso and co-workers synthesised small amounts of the element in 1950.



Carbon is derived from the Latin word carbo for charcoal. Elementary carbon (diamond, graphite or charcoal) was already known of in ancient times. Smithson Tennant proved in 1797 that carbon is an element.



Cerium is named after the asteroid Ceres, which was discovered in 1801, and is itself named after - you guessed it - Ceres, the Roman goddess of earth, agriculture, fertility, and grain. The element Cerium was identified in 1803 by Jöns Jakob Berzelius.



Cesium - the internationally-accepted spelling is caesium - was identified using spectroscopic methods in 1860 by Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchhoff (cf. also The History of Optical Science). Caesius is Latin for 'sky blue,' the colour of the element's emission spectrum.



Chlorine is a greenish-yellow (also toxic and aggressive) gas. Chloros is Greek for 'greenish yellow'. Chlorine was identified in 1774 by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, but he didn't figure out it was an element. Sir Humphry Davy did, in 1810.



Chromium is responsible for the many different colours of its compounds - its name is derived from the Greek word chroma for 'colour.' Chromium was obtained as a metal for the first time in 1798 by Louis Nicolas Vauquelin, and in its pure form by Hans Goldschmidt in 1894.



Cobalt is derived from the German word Kobold which is a fictitious creature similar to a goblin. Kobold in its turn is derived from cobalos the Greek word for 'mischievous'. But why was the element named after a goblin? Cobalt is commonly found as cobaltite (cobalt arsenide), a shiny, promising mineral. However when processed no precious metal is obtained, just toxic garlic stench, from the arsenic compounds. Cobalt was obtained in its pure form by Georg Brandt in 1735.



Copper was known in ancient Rome as aes cyprium meaning 'ore from Cyprus'. The name later mutated to 'cuprum' from which its symbol is derived. Copper-mining dates back to prehistoric times.



Curium was identified by Glenn T Seaborg and Albert Ghiorso in 1944, and isolated by Isadore Perlman and Louis Werner in 1947. It was named in honour of Pierre and Marie Curie, pioneers in actinoid research. This naming follows the same pattern as in the lanthanoid group: Curium's homologue in that group is Gadolinium, which was named after Johan Gadolin, the pioneer in lanthanoid research. Minute amounts of curium probably occur naturally in uranium-containing minerals.



Dysprosium was named after the Greek word dysprositos which means 'hard to get at'. André Lecoq de Boisbaudran identified the element in 1886, George Urbain isolated impure dysprosium in 1906 and it was obtained in its pure form only in 1950 by Frank H Spedding and co-workers - dyspriosium is really 'hard to get at'.



Einsteinium was named in honour of Albert Einstein. Ironically (as Einstein was a militant pacifist) Einsteinium was discovered in the debris of the first thermonuclear4 explosion (November 1952, in the Pacific Ocean) by Albert Ghiorso and co-workers.

Erbium, Ytterbium, Yttrium, Terbium

(68Er), (70Yb), (39Y), (65Tb)

All named after Ytterby, the site of a quarry, and a village near Stockholm, Sweden. Minerals from this site contain unusually high amounts of rare-earth elements (elements 58-71). Rare-earth elements5 behave very similarly and are thus difficult to separate. Yttrium (not a rare-earth element) was isolated in 1794 by the Finnish chemist Johan Gadolin from a mineral, mined in and named after Ytterby, called yttria. Ytterbium was named after another mineral occurring in Ytterby, called ytterbia. Terbium and erbium were found in the minerals terbia and erbia (which were often confused and originally named erbia and terbia, respectively). These minerals also occur in Ytterby. Erbium was identified in 1905 by Georges Urbain and Charles James (independently) and isolated in 1934 by Wilhelm Klemm and Heinrich Bommer. Terbium was identified in 1843 by Carl Gustav Mosander. Ytterbium was identified by Jean-Charles G de Marginac in 1878.



Europium is named after Europe, which itself comes from 'Europa' in Greek mythology - but that's another story.6 Europium was identified by spectroscopy in 1890 by Andre Lecoq de Boisbaudran and isolated in 1901 by Eugene Demarcay.



Fermium was named in honour of Enrico Fermi. Fermium was discovered by Albert Ghiorso in the debris of the first thermonuclear7 explosion in 1952.

1A homologue element is situated directly above or below the element in the periodic table of the elements, and has often similar properties.2The German word 'Brille' ('eyeglasses') is derived from that word.3Many textbooks claim that Wismuth comes from the German meaning 'white mass' - not true.4aka H-Bomb, or fusion bomb5which turns out are not so rare, just very finely-dispersed6The actinoid homologue was named 'americium' following the same pattern of the lanthanoid group.7aka H-Bomb, or fusion bomb

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