Naming the elements: 150 years of the periodic table

March 13, 2019 by Alison Tunley

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In 1869 Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev published his periodic table in which elements are ordered by virtue of their atomic structure. To mark the 150th anniversary of this seminal work, the UN has declared 2019 the “international year of the periodic table”, and this week’s blog takes a look at the etymology behind some of its entries.


Being a famous scientist definitely helps your odds of having a chemical element named after you! Albert Einstein has einsteinium, Pierre and Marie Curie get curium and Nils Bohr has bohrium. Fittingly the table’s inventor himself was finally honoured with mendelevium, which was synthesised in a University of California laboratory in 1955. However, the choice did not meet with universal approval, as one of the scientists explains “in the middle of the Cold War, naming an element for a Russian was a somewhat bold gesture that did not sit well with some American critics.”


Countries are also well-represented when it comes to etymological inspiration. They include polonium named after Poland (the native country of Marie Curie, its co-discoverer), germanium (discovered by German chemist Clemens Alexander Winkler) and americium (after the USA where it was first made in the 1940s by bombarding plutonium with neutrons).

States, cities, towns and even villages get a look in too with californium, darmstadtium, berkelium and strontium (the latter being named after a village in the Scottish Highlands).

Most remarkably, the little village of Ytterby on an island outside Stockholm is credited with the names of four elements: ytterbium, yttrium, terbium, and erbium, all of which were discovered in a mine there. In fact, three further elements can be traced back to the same location (holmium, thulium and gadolinium) but the scientists had used up all the letters in Ytterby by then and had to seek etymological inspiration elsewhere.


Several elements derive their name from a particularly distinctive characteristic. For instance, barium from Greek barys, meaning heavy (it was found in the high density mineral barium sulfate), astatine from Greek astatos, meaning unstable (all of astatine’s isotopes are short-lived) and argon from Greek argos, meaning idle (thanks to its reluctance to undergo chemical reactions with other elements). Or my own personal favourite bromine, from Greek bromos, ‘stench’ thanks to its unpleasant odour.

Colour is another popular influence: rhodium, from Greek rhodon, meaning rose is named after the colour of the solution of its salts. In other cases the colour link isn’t so obvious, with spectral analysis required to understand the origins of rubidium from Latin rubidus, red (its spectrum has two red lines) and indium from Latin indicium, meaning violet or indigo (due to colour of the brightest line in its atomic spectrum).

But perhaps the element with the best back story is cobalt, from the German kobold “household goblin”, a troublesome being with a tendency to cause mischief. In mining communities cobalt ore gained a reputation for making life difficult for miners who would extract it from the earth due to its similarity in appearance to silver ore, only to discover that it yielded nothing of value when smelted. To make matters worse, these rocks also often contained arsenic, which produced vapour that made the miners ill or even killed them off.


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