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Naming the Elements

Crystal Jeter
Product Developer

Over 100 named elements are listed on the periodic table. Some of these elements are common and very familiar, and others are so rare that they exist for just part of a second before they decay. Did you ever wonder how these elements get their names?

Some of the names of elements we know today come from the Latin word for the element and are not named after anything else. These elements were found naturally and were fairly easy for people in ancient times to extract and use; they include elements such as lead (plubium, Pb), iron (ferrum, Fe), copper (cuprum, Cu), tin (stannum, Sn), silver (argentum, Ag), and gold (aurum, Au). These elements may have been named in languages that predate the Roman Empire, but the names were documented during the Roman Empire, and as such the names are used today.

Profusion of naming conventions

Because discovering an element can be a difficult task, individuals or groups that discover an element typically get the privilege of naming it. Elements have been named after a number of things including their attributes, the compound or ore from which they were isolated, how they were discovered or obtained, mythological figures, places, and famous people.

Some elements have descriptive names based on an attribute of the element. For example, some types of phosphorous burn when exposed to air. The Greek phosphoros, from which the name phosphorous is derived, means “lightning bringer,” representing its reactivity. Iodine is named from the Greek word iodes, which means “violet,” because of the purple color of the gaseous form of iodine.

Other elements were named after the compound or ore from which they were isolated. For example, aluminum is found in alum (a compound of aluminum potassium and sulfate) and was named after that compound. Nickel was named after the German word kupfernickel (or kopparnickel) meaning “copper colored,” which is descriptive of the ore, niccolite (or nickeline), from which nickel is obtained.

Like helium and technetium, some of the elements were named based on how they were discovered or how they were obtained. Scientists discovered helium when they were studying a solar eclipse and saw an unexpected line in an emission spectrum; therefore, helium was named after the Greek word for the sun, helios. Technetium is named from the Greek word technêtos, which means “artificial” and is applicable because technetium has no stable isotopes and scientists produced it artificially in a laboratory.

Scientists named the elements uranium, neptunium, and plutonium after planets. In 1789, they named element 92, uranium, after Uranus, discovered in 1781. When elements 93 and 94 were discovered in the 1940s, scientists named them neptunium and plutonium after the planets that followed Uranus in the solar system. Scientists also named elements 46 (palladium) and 58 (cerium) after heavenly bodies, but in these instances after the asteroids Pallas and Ceres, respectively.

Still other elements were named after mythological figures. Thorium derives its name from Thor, the Norse god of thunder. Element 73, tantalum, gets its name from Tantalus, a Greek god and son of Zeus. Tantalus is best known for his eternal punishment, which was to suffer unquenchable thirst. Forced to stand in a pool of water, when Tantalus bent down to drink the water would disappear. Scientists chose this name for tantalum because its oxide is unreactive with acid, a metaphorical parallel to Tantalus’s fate. Later, when scientists discovered that one of the first samples containing tantalum also contained another new element, it was named niobium after Niobe, Tantalus’s daughter.

More recently discovered elements have names that represent places. Scientists named the elements yttrium (Y), ytterbium (Yb), terbium (Tb), and erbium (Er) for Ytterby, Sweden, as they were all found there in a mine. Scientists named berkelium (Bk) in honor of Berkeley, CA, where this element was discovered. Similarly, scientists named other elements, like gallium and ruthenium, after ancient Gaul (present-day France) and Ruthenia (part of present-day Russia), the places in which they were discovered.

Many elements were named after famous scientists. Some of the best-known elements include einsteinium (Albert Einstein), curium (Marie and Pierre Curie), rutherfordium (Ernest Rutherford), nobelium (Alfred Nobel), and mendelevium (Dmitri Mendeleev).

The transfermium wars

Today elements are still named by the groups or individuals who first discovered the elements; however, determining who made the first discovery has led to some interesting naming disputes. Scientists create new elements artificially, and the elements usually last very short periods of time—making it difficult to prove that an element has been created. This was the case in what has been termed the transfermium wars, in which 2 laboratories (one from the United States and one from Russia) claimed discovery of elements 104 and 105.

Each of the 2 laboratories claimed discovery for these elements, proposed names, and refused to recognize the other group’s names. The IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry)—which officially confirms element names and is the final authority—suggested a compromise. The compromise proposed that the name chosen by the American laboratory for element 105, hahnium, be used instead for element 108, which was discovered by another laboratory in Germany. However, the German group disagreed with the proposed compromise, claiming that its lab had indisputably discovered element 108 and that, based on traditional naming conventions, it should choose the name. The controversy ended in 1997 when the American and Russian groups agreed to share in naming elements 104 and 105. The German group was able to name the elements it had discovered in accordance with tradition.

IUPAC and standardized naming

Currently, the naming process has become much more standardized, and specific steps must be followed to name a new element. When a lab reports that a new element has been discovered, a team from IUPAC and IUPAP (International Union of Pure and Applied Physics) verifies the discovery. Once the team verifies the event, the discoverer(s) are entitled to propose a name. From there, the proposed name goes through several steps of review and comment before it is approved. If the IUPAC rejects the original name, then it gives the discovering group another opportunity to suggest a different name. Once IUPAC approves the name, it is the official name.

IUPAC’s guidelines for a new name states that it can be based on a:

  • Mythological concept or character (including an astronomical object)
  • Mineral or similar substance
  • Place or geographical region
  • Property of the element
  • Scientist

In addition, all new element names must end in the suffix “-ium.” Once a name has been unofficially used for an element, as when the American lab proposed hahnium for element 105, that name cannot be used for another new element.

Recent naming activity

The IUPAC recognized the most recently named elements on May 30, 2012, approving the names of elements 114 flerovium (Fv), in honor of Georgy N. Flerov, and 116 livermorium, after the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. A joint working party of IUPAC and IUPAP is currently considering claims for the discovery of elements with atomic numbers 113, 115, 117, and 118, for which no assignments have yet been made. Overall, the naming of the elements is more standardized but still a fascinating process.

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