FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK

All the things that elements of the periodic table are named after

In December, the international body that governs the rules of naming chemicals added four new elements to the periodic table. In one swoop, the International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry had finally completed the seventh row of the periodic table.

Yesterday (June 8), the groups that discovered those elements were invited to propose new names, which will undergo a public review before final acceptance. Japanese researchers proposed Nihonium (Nh) for element 113, named after the Japanese name for Japan. US and Russian researchers proposed Moscovium (Mc) for element 115, after Moscow; Tennessine (Ts) for element 117, after Tennessee, where one of the research labs is based; and Oganesson (Og) for element 118, after scientist Yuri Oganessian. The only other US state to have received this honor is California, with Californium (Cf).

Before they were proposed, the groups had to make themselves familiar to some strange rules that have been laid down for naming new elements. In brief, here are the rules: Names must not differ in different languages, and they can only be named after a place, a mythological character, a mineral or a property of the element, or a scientist. Many element names have their origins in Greek or Latin, but they also come from French, German, English, Persian, Swedish, Sanskrit, and other languages.

These rules were only put in place in 2002, but because they were based on the history of the table’s naming, all elements seem to follow them:

Of course, it’s not always so clear what a name’s origins are. There are elements such as Gallium (Ga), which have a twisted naming history. It’s usually assumed that the element was named after Gallia, which is Latin for France. But there may also have been some word play involved. Gallium was isolated as a free metal by Lecoq de Boisbaudran. He could have indirectly named the element after himself, because Lecoq means “rooster” in French, and gallus has the same meaning in Latin.

Here is the full list of names counted in the chart above:

Named after Elements
Property H, Li, Be, C, O, Ne, P, S, Cl, Ar, Cr, Mn, Fe, Co, Ni, Zn, As, Br, Kr, Rb, Zr, Mo, Tc, Rh, Ag, In, Sn, Sb, Te, I, Cs, Xe, Ba, La, Pr, Nd, Pm, Dy, W, Os, Ir, Pt, Au, Tl, Pb, Bi, At, Rn, Ra, Ac, Pa
Location Mg, Sc, Cu, Ga, Ge, Sr, Y, Ru, Eu, Tb, Ho, Er, Yb, Lu, Hf, Re, Po, Fr, Am, Bk, Cf, Db, Hs, Ds, Lv, Nh, Mc, Ts
Scientist Sm, Gd, Cm, Es, Fm, Md, No, Lr, Rf, Sg, Bh, Mt, Rg, Cn, Fl, Og
Mythology He, Ti, V, Se, Nb, Pd, Ce, Pr, Pm, Tm, Ta, Hg, Th, U, Np, Pu
Mineral B, N, F, Na, Al, Si, K, Ca, Cd

We at Quartz are insatiably curious. We bring you the best timely research in science and technology, but in Funny you should ask, we’ll tackle timeless questions. If you have some, submit them here.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search