Q&A: Quirky chemical symbols explained

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're in our element…

Q: Hi AWC, I have a chemistry question.

A: Hmmm, you may have the wrong column.

Q: Well, no, it’s still related to words. I want to know why some elements have really odd symbols. For example, “Au” for GOLD. Or “Pb” for LEAD.

A: Yes, they seem to have “LEAD” people astray.

Q: I know right! Then you have “K” for POTASSIUM. Is someone just assigning random letters willy nilly?

A: Ahhh Willy Nilly, the famous Scottish scientist famous for doing a bunch of stuff randomly. 

Q: Wait, was that actually a person?

A: No, just messing with you. The term “willy-nilly” dates back to the early 17th century, from “will I, nill I” or “will he/ye, nill he/ye”. Essentially it was saying “I am willing, I am unwilling” – where something was done with or without the will of the person concerned.

Q: Fair enough. So, back to the elements?

A: Ah yes. So, there are currently 118 elements on the Periodic Table – including the four most recently added in 2016. And for the most part, their corresponding symbols all make sense, following some form of their name. 

Q: But not ALL of them!

A: No, a select group of 11 elements appear to have nothing at all to do with their names. These elements, which we shall call the “Pub Trivia 11” are the ones we want to look at.

Q: The Pub Trivia 11 – I like it!

A: And to understand them, you need to look at HOW elements have been named over the years. 

Q: Yes, let’s do that.

A: Well, 42 elements have their names derived from Greek and 23 from Latin. A bunch of other languages lend a hand to other names, including English, German, Swedish, Russian, even Sanskrit and Spanish. And 15 are simply named after the scientist that discovered them.

Q: Okay, so it’s a diverse mix.

A: It’s also an old mix – with many of the elements being so ancient that they were widely known in their original Latin. Lead was “Plumbum” – hence the “Pb” denotation and why the lead pipes used for water were referred to as “plumbing”.

Q: So which other elements on this list relate to the Latin words?

A: Most actually. Gold and Silver were of course well known in ancient times – their names being Aurum and Argentum respectively, to give us “Au” and “Ag”.

Q: Wait, is that silver one how Argentina got its name?

A: It sure is! From the Spanish adjective for “silvery” – because the first European explorers were given silver gifts by the indigenous peoples.

Q: So, we’ve had Gold and Silver. What about Bronze?

A: Another good trivia question, because Bronze is not actually a base element. It’s an alloy created from two elements – Copper and Tin. But both of them ARE on our list of messed up symbols.

Q: That’s a shiny segue.

A: Indeed. Copper got its symbol “Cu” from the Latin “Cuprum” – which was what the Romans called the island of Cyprus, where they had first mined it. Meanwhile, Tin was originally known as “Stannum”, hence why Latin-loving chemists chose to keep the “Sn” symbol.

Q: Oh, what about Iron? Why is its symbol “Fe”?

A: Iron was originally known as “Ferrum”, hence the reason for “Fe”. Incidentally, it didn’t get its current name until the Crusades, when “iren” was the “holy metal” used to make swords.

Q: How ironic.

A: Meanwhile, Sodium and Potassium share a similar story. Their metals were both discovered in 1807 and a chemist named Humphry Davy suggested their names come from existing compounds that had contained each. Soda or “Sodanum” had been used for centuries as a headache remedy, while “potash” had also been used since the 1400s for bleaching textiles, making soap and glass.

Q: Okay, sounds logical. But wait, haven’t we talked about Davy before?

A: Actually yes! He also wanted to name Aluminium “aluminum” – something that ended up sticking in North America. We spoke about it a while back.

Q: So we did.

A: Anyway, so Davy may have secured the names for Sodium and Potassium, but at the same time a bunch of German chemists were busy creating the first atomic charts and assigning symbols to match. A German chemist Ludwig Wilhelm Gilbert instead proposed New Latin variations “Natrium” and “Kalium” as the names – with Na and K their symbols. 

Q: So Davy got to keep the names, while Gilbert kept the symbols.

A: That’s right. Like a custody settlement.

Q: Oh, that reminds me of another one – alimony? 

A: Close. You’re thinking of “antimony” – a metal that hung out with fellow listees copper, tin and lead over the years to make various metal alloys. It too was another Latin promotion – originally called “stibium” (which the German scientists in the 1800s would honour with the “Sb” symbol). The actual origin of the later Greek-derived name “antimony” is unclear, the most fun theory suggesting it meant “monk killer” (anti-monachos”) due to its poisonous qualities!

Q: Ouch. So wait, that’s… lemme see.. That’s NINE. What are the final two on the list?

A: First up, Tungsten and its “W” symbol. Back in 1781, Swedish chemists created “tungstic acid” from a mineral which was then called tungsten (later known as scheelite, and yes, it’s confusing). Not long after, two Spanish chemists created the same acid, but using a different mineral – wolframite. They went on to isolate the metal, and to this day, while most call the metal Tungsten, many countries opt for Wolfram – including Germany, who gave it the “W” symbol.

Q: And the last one?

A: Mercury – symbol “Hg” – is named after the Roman God. But its symbol actually came from the Greek word “hydrargyros” – or “water silver”. This is due to its liquid silver appearance at room temperature – historically also known as “quicksilver”.

Q: Aha! Wow, so that’s the Pub Trivia 11 explained!

A: That’s right. As you can see, most of the mismatches were the result of Latin-name enthusiast German chemists in the early 1800s wanting to sound fancier for their new charts. By the time Dmitri Mendeleev created the Periodic Table in the 1860s, these symbols were set.

Q: And are new elements still being discovered?

A: Not discovered exactly, but certainly scientists continue to make superheavy elements in laboratories. It’s elementary, my dear Question…

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