A Basic Guide to Decoding the Names of Organic Compounds

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If you’ve ever looked on the back of a bottle of shampoo, or at that of a household cleaner, you’ve probably come across a list of organic compound names. To chemists, these are precise descriptions of the compounds, but to non-chemists, they can sometimes just look like some kind of indecipherable code. The aim of today’s graphic is to try and shed a little light on this code, and what it all means.

This graphic was inspired by a brief Twitter conversation with Michelle Franci about helping people to understand the names of organic compounds. I’ve forgotten the exact details of the conversation, and tried and failed to track it down again on Twitter, but the gist of it was that, whilst chemists of course learn how to name organic compounds, most non-chemists are likely frequently perplexed by this odd chemical language when they come across it. The idea of this graphic is to try and lend a translating hand.

Will this graphic help you understand every facet of the names of organic compounds? Well, no. Their names can get pretty complicated, and actually, when they get too complicated, chemists often just use shorter, more memorable names instead (as an example, (S)-3-[1-Methylpyrrolidin-2-yl]pyridine is more commonly known as nicotine). This graphic isn’t intended to be a blow-by-blow guide to naming organic compounds – a full treatise on chemical naming would require a lot more space than is used here! However, it will give you a little bit of an idea of what the different parts of the names of a molecule mean, at least in the case of slightly simpler molecules.

If you do want to find out more about chemical naming, there are a number of other previous graphics on the site to complement this one. There’s one on the multitude of functional groups that can be found in organic molecules, and the naming conventions for each, and there’s also another graphic on the different types of isomerism that organic molecules can exhibit.

I’d actually love to hear back from non-chemists who aren’t familiar with chemical naming on this one. Does it help make the whole thing a little clearer, or are there parts that are still rather muddied? And chemists, if you think there are any key points I’ve omitted, or if you think there are parts that could be clarified, feel free to say so. Leave your thoughts below!

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