The periodic table: how elements get their names

Periodic table of elements

Most people could name many of the elements, but how many of us know how they got those names?

Each of the 115 known chemical elements was discovered over the last few thousand years, from before recorded history began to the nuclear laboratories of the 21st century.

British scientists and the elements

Humphry Davy experimenting
  • Humphry Davy discovered nine elements using electrolysis - the splitting up of compounds into elements by applying electricity.
  • William Ramsay discovered a new group of unreactive elements using spectroscopy, now called the noble gases.
  • William Crookes identified helium for the first time, and also discovered thallium.

Their chosen names were influenced by an ever changing mix of language, culture and our understanding of chemistry.

So how did they get these names? And why do they end in -ium?

Ancient Elements

Several elements' names have Anglo-Saxon language origins, including gold, iron, copper and silver.

These metals were known long before they got these names, however. Gold can be found in its pure form in nature and although iron is usually found in ores which require smelting, the earliest known iron artefacts, from 3500 BCE, derive from purer metal from meteorites.

The Latin names of these elements are commemorated in their atomic symbols, Au (aurum) for gold and Fe (ferrum) for iron.

The Romans began the practise of element names ending in "-um," with Victorian scientists continuing the trend.

Piece of meteoric iron Meteoric iron was used by humans before smelting of iron ores was invented.
Element of uncertainty

Since 1947, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) has had the responsibility for approving elements' names, and deciding the single internationally recognised symbol for each element.

Before this, there were multiple historical occasions of elements being given several names, usually due to simultaneous discovery or uncertainty over a discovery.

The name of element 41 was not agreed for 150 years. It was called columbium in America and niobium in Europe until IUPAC finally decided the official name would be niobium in 1949.

Dr Fabienne Meyers, Associate Director of IUPAC, explains the current naming process: To start with, "the discoverers are invited to propose a name and a symbol."

"For linguistic consistency, the recommended practice is that all new elements should end in '-ium'," she adds.

Start Quote

The sake of naming an element is essentially to avoid confusion.”

End Quote Dr Fabienne Meyers Associate Direcor, IUPAC

"Since the sake of naming an element is essentially to avoid confusion, it is important to ensure that the proposed name is unique and has not been used earlier even unofficially or temporarily for a different element."

"After examination and acceptance by the division - which includes a public review period of five months - the name and symbol are then submitted to the IUPAC Council for approval."

The name is then published in the scientific journal Pure and Applied Chemistry.

Actinium to zirconium

A common source of names both now and historically, over a quarter of the elements are named after a place, often where they were discovered or synthesised.

These places range in size from continents (europium) and countries (americium, francium, polonium) to the the Scottish village Strontian (strontium).

Because of the great wealth of discoveries made there, four elements are named after the Swedish mining village, Ytterby (ytterbium, yttrium, erbium and terbium).

There is just one element that wasn't first discovered on Earth, and it too is named after its place of the discovery - helium, from the Greek word for Sun, helios.

Myth and legend
Photograph of Dmitri Mendeleev Dmitri Mendeleev published the periodic table in its modern form.

About a dozen elements take their name directly from legends, including titanium, arsenic and tantalum.

Nickel and cobalt are named after 'devil' and 'kobold', from the Germanic folk belief that malign creatures snuck into mines to replace valuable and similar-looking copper and silver ores with these less valuable ones.

In 1949 the artificial element Promethium was named after Prometheus, the man in Greek legend punished with eternal torture for stealing fire from the gods, as a reference to the great difficulty and sacrifice needed to synthesise new elements.

Eponymous elements

Modestly, no discoverer has ever named an element after him or herself, but several scientists have been honoured by having elements named after them. These include curium, einsteinium and fermium.

Seaborgium, named after American chemist Glenn Seaborg, was the first element to be named after a living scientist.

There is also mendelevium, named after Dmitri Mendeleev, the Russian scientist who established the first periodic table in 1869, and fitted the known elements into their places in the table based on their properties.

Elemental techniques
Glass vial of green chlorine gas Sample of chlorine created by Humphry Davy in 1810. It is named after the Greek word for green.

Fifty elements were discovered in the 19th Century, the greatest number of any century. By comparison, twenty nine elements were discovered in the 20th Century, and five new ones have been synthesised so far in the 21st.

Frank James, Professor of the History of Science at The Royal Institution in London, where several elements were discovered, says that the contribution of British scientists was very important.

"Using electro-chemical methods, Humphry Davy either isolated or demonstrated the elemental nature of a total of nine chemical elements naming most of them in the process, such as sodium, potassium and chlorine."

British scientist William Ramsay used a powerful new technique, spectroscopy, to discover the noble gases, a group of elements which had evaded discovery due to their lack of reactivity. He used Greek words to name neon (new), xenon (stranger), krypton (hidden), and argon (inactive).

Colours and sense

Colours are a name source for nine elements. Each element can be identified by the colours it emits using spectroscopy, and several elements are named after the brightest colour they emit, including indium and rubidium.

Spectroscopy

The unique emission spectrum of helium

Each element can be made to emit a unique spectrum of light which identifies it like a fingerprint. Helium's emission spectrum is shown above.

WATCH: Brian Cox explains how the colour of stars reveals what they are made of

WATCH: Brian Cox explains how the chemical elements are created within stars

Visible traits are a major source of names, but the other senses are represented too: osmium and bromine are named for their smell, and aluminium is named after the Latin word for the bitter tasting chemical in which it was first discovered, alum.

Ununpentium onwards

The newest element to be experimentally confirmed, element 115, will be called ununpentium until an official name is decided, and 114 (Flerovium) and 116 (Livermorium) were named in 2012.

IUPAC's Dr Meyers explains that although all recent elements have been named after people and places, "a mythological concept or character, a mineral or a property of the element could also be used as the root for an acceptable name."

And with no shortage of eminent scientists and important centres of science as inspiration, new names will always retain an element of surprise.

More on This Story

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

Programmes

BBC iPlayer

Get Inspired

ACTIVITY FINDER

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.