Most of the chemical symbols for elements in the periodic table make perfect sense; there are a small selection, however, that seem to bear no relation to their element’s name. After the periodic table of rejected element names a few days ago, questions about these elements came up, so here’s a look at their confusing symbols, along with the reasons behind them.
Sodium – Natrium (Na)
Sodium’s Latin name, ‘natrium’, derives from the Greek ‘nítron’ (a name for sodium carbonate). Its original source is likely to be the Arabic work ‘natrun’. A number of modern languages still call the element natrium instead of sodium, and it’s this name that its chemical symbol, Na, comes from.
Potassium – Kalium (K)
‘Kalium’ is potassium’s Latin name, and derives from the Arabic ‘al qalīy’, meaning “calcined ashes” (the ashes left over when plant material is burned). As with sodium, a number of modern languages still refer to potassium as kalium, and the name lends the element its chemical symbol, K.
Iron – Ferrum (Fe)
Iron’s Latin name, ‘ferrum’, gives it its symbol Fe; it simply means ‘iron’ or ‘sword’, and is possibly of Semitic origin. The element is known by a myriad of various names in different languages, with some sources suggesting there are over 200 different names for it. There’s a list of 213 of them here.
Copper – Cuprum (Cu)
There’s no shortage of elements named after places, but copper’s name is more subtle than most. Copper’s Latin name was ‘cyprium’, which itself comes from ‘kypros’, the Greek name for Cyprus. The island of Cyprus was famous centuries ago for its copper reserves. The name was eventually simplified to ‘cuprum’, and this eventually morphed into the English version, copper.
Silver – Argentum (Ag)
The Latin name for silver, ‘argentum’, is thought to derive originally from an Indo-European language, likely referring to the metal’s shininess. The country Argentina is named after silver (albeit indirectly as reference to the Río de la Plata) and is the only country to be named after a chemical element, rather than the other way around.
Tin – Stannum (Sn)
Tin’s Latin name, ‘stannum’, may be derived from the Indo-European ‘stag’ (dripping) because tin melts at a low temperature. There’s also speculation it could be derived from the Cornish ‘stean’ due to Cornwall’s famous tin mines, though similarly, others claim that this word is merely derived from the Latin.
Antimony – Stibium (Sb)
The Latin ‘stibium’ derives from the Greek word ‘stíbi’, meaning eye paint, referring to the use of antimony compounds as an ancient eye cosmetic. This word is in turn likely derived from Arabic or Egyptian. Few countries refer to antimony as stibium today, despite its symbol.
Tungsten – Wolfram (W)
Wolfram was named after the mineral it was found in, wolframite. This is from the German ‘wolf rahm’, or ‘wolf’s foam’, referring to the amount of tin ‘eaten’ by the metal during its extraction. Wolfram is still used in several languages. Tungsten is from Swedish, and means heavy stone – somewhat apt, as it’s the seventh densest element in the periodic table.
Gold – Aurum (Au)
The Latin name for gold was ‘aurum’, meaning ‘yellow’, derived from the word ‘aurora’ (‘dawn’). The name ‘gold’, used in Germanic languages, means ‘yellow, shining metal’; many other European languages use derivatives of aurum.
Mercury – Hydrargyrum (Hg)
Mercury’s original Latin name was actually ‘argentum vivum’ (living silver), but Latin later borrowed from the Greek ‘hydrargyros’ (liquid silver) to give ‘hydrargyrum’. The original English name for the element was ‘quicksilver’. Alchemists considered it to be close to gold, and because of this they named it Mercury, after the planet closest to the Sun. Some of the other metals known since antiquity were given names corresponding to the planets, too, but Mercury’s is the only one that’s stuck.
Lead – Plumbum
Lead’s Latin name, ‘plumbum’, likely originally derives from a language pre-dating Ancient Greek. This Latin name is also the source of the English words ‘plumbing’ and ‘plumber’, due to the historic use of lead in water pipes.
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References & Further Reading