The strange rules that dictate how new elements get their names

Named for eternity.
Named for eternity.
Image: Flickr/Hiroshi Nishimoto under CC-BY
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The names of elements in the periodic table—like lithium or beryllium—may not mean much to you today, but they are seared in your memory. Naming an element, then, is creating history.

On Dec. 30, scientists in the US, Russia, and Japan were given rights to suggest the names of the final four elements on the periodic table. But before they suggest names, they will have to familiarize themselves with some strange rules that find roots in the history of discovering new elements.

As early as 1782—nearly 100 years before the modern periodic table was created—chemists realized the need for “a constant method of denomination” for these fundamental blocks of the universe. As the number of elements of began increasing, it became necessary that their names were unique and easy to remember.

After many debates and conferences, the International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) was created in 1919 to enforce standards in chemistry, including rules for naming of elements and compounds. Once established, all seemed well.

Until the Cold War.

By the 1940s, all the naturally existing elements on Earth had been discovered. Each of them had a unique number of protons in the nucleus. But the complex rules of quantum chemistry predicted that more elements should exist. If we can’t find them on Earth, scientists thought, perhaps we need to create them. The solution seemed simple: inject more protons into the nucleus of an already existing element. If the proton sticks, at least for a while, it would be considered a new element.

Two groups of scientists, one in the US and one in the Soviet Union began furiously working on creating these “synthetic elements.” IUPAC decided in 1947 that the naming rights would go to the team that definitively showed the existence of a new element, as long as an IUPAC committee also approved it. The already fierce competition between the two countries became even more intense.

In fact, in the history of chemistry, some refer to the period between the 1960s and 1990s as the “Transfermium Wars,” where trans stands for “after” element 100 (fermium). For three decades, scientists fought a war of words over the naming of elements 104 to 109. Russian, US, and German scientists had discovered some of these elements at nearly the same time, and they had their own preferences for what the elements should be called.

IUPAC stepped in to resolve the feud in 1997: elements 104 and 106 went to the Americans; elements 105 and 107 went to the Russians; and elements 108 and 109 went to the Germans. In doing so, however, it created another layer of complexity. Wilhem Koppenol, a chemist at ETH Zurich, explains IUPAC’s recommendations for naming elements that—following the drama of 1997—were put in place in 2002:

  • After IUPAC decides who deserves the credit for the discovery, the discoverers receive the right to suggest a name.
  • It is desirable that the names of elements in different languages differ as little as possible.
  • In keeping with tradition, elements are named after a mythological concept or character (including an astronomical object); a mineral, or similar substance; a place or geographical region; a property of the element; or a scientist.
  • The names of new element should end in “-ium.” (A 2015 proposal wants names of elements 117 and 118 to have different endings, “-ine” and “-on” respectively.)
  • Once the discovery of the element is confirmed and before its name is approved, the element will be referred to by its number (element 118) or a provisional name (ununoctium).
  • The final name is dependent on the IUPAC’s approval, and IUPAC has the right to disregard the discoverer.
  • To make matters just a little complicated, “when a name has been in unofficial use for a particular element, but a different name is ultimately chosen for that element, then the first name cannot be transferred for use for another element.”

Even if these are followed, naming an element can sometimes take more than a decade. So even though the seventh row of the periodic table is now complete, it won’t be many years before we see the last of the unun-named elements gone.