The Elements: Names and Origins - F-N
Created | Updated Sep 11, 2013
Introduction | A to E | F to N | O to Z
Fluorine is found predominantly in fluorspar (CaF2) which was used as a flux1, this is mentioned for the first time in Geogius Agricola's work of 1529. The use of this material as a flux, to which corresponds the Latin verb 'fluere' is the origin of fluorine's name. Many scientists tried to isolate fluorine, but only in 1886 Ferdinand Frederic Henri Moisson succeeded.
Francium is named after France, which is where the element was isolated in 1939 by Marguerite Perey. Traces of francium occur naturally in uranium-containing minerals.
Gadolinium is named after the mineral gadolinite, where it occurs. Gadolinite is in its turn named after the Finnish chemist Johan Gadolin who discovered it. It was also Gadolin who separated all the rare-earth minerals such as terbia and yttria from which terbium and yttrium were finally obtained. In that sense Gadolin was the pioneer in rare-earth research.2 Gadolinium was isolated by Jean-Charles G de Marignac in 1886, named and identified by Andre Lecoq de Boisbaudran in the same year.
Gallium is named after the Latin word for the region now known as France, 'Gallia'. The story goes that Lecoq de Boisbaudran, the Frenchman who isolated the element in 1878, named it 'Gallium' because of the Latin word 'gallus' which means 'cock' or in French 'le coq'. The existence and the properties of gallium had been predicted in 1871 by Dmitri Mendeleev (who named it 'Eka-Aluminium' meaning 'the next'-Aluminium). The isolation and the confirmation of the predictions demonstrated for the first time the power of the periodic table of elements.
Germanium is named after the Latin designation for the region now known as Germany, 'Germania'. The element and its properties were predicted in 1871 by Dmitri Mendeleev (who named it 'Eka-Silicium' meaning 'the next'-silicon). Clemens Alexander Winkler, the German chemist, identified and isolated the element in 1886. The confirmation of Mendeleev's predictions consolidated the use of the periodic table of the elements.
Gold is the old Anglo-Saxon designation for this precious metal and has roots in Sanskrit ('Jval' which means 'shining'). It occurs in its pure form naturally, and has been known from ancient times. The symbol 'Au' is derived from the Latin word for gold 'aurum' which is derived from 'Aurora' the goddess of dawn.
Hafnium is named after the Latin designation 'hafniae' for the city of Copenhagen, Denmark. Niels Bohr, from Copenhagen, predicted in 1922 that element 72 would exhibit almost identical chemical behaviour to the by-then-known element zirconium (40Zr). He therefore suggested looking for this element in zirconium-containing minerals, such as zirconia. In 1923, Dirk Coster and George Charles von Hevesy, both in Copenhagen, found the element in zirconia using X-ray spectroscopy. The metal was isolated by von Hevesy shortly later. Zirconium and Hafnium do indeed exhibit almost identical chemical behaviour and are, of all elements, the most difficult to separate.
Helium is named after the Greek word for 'sun', 'helios' as it was identified spectroscopically by Pierre Jansen and Norman Lockyer (independently) in sunlight during the solar eclipse of 1868. William Ramsay and Per Theodore Cleve (independently) isolated pure helium in 1895 (cf. also Noble Gases - History and The Effects of Helium on Your Voice).
Holmium is named after 'Holmia' the Latin name for the city of Stockholm, Sweden, which is the native city of Per Theodore Cleve, who identified the element in 1879. It had been observed spectroscopically before, in 1878, by Marc Delafontaine and Jacques Louis Soret.
Hydrogen was identified by Henry Cavendish in 1766, but was named by Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier due to the fact that hydrogen is a component of water. From the Greek words 'hydro' (meaning 'water) and 'gennan' (meaning 'to form, to generate'), hydrogen is an element that forms water.
Indium was identified spectroscopically due to its deep blue, or indigo-coloured emission line ('indigo' in its turn is named after the blue dye indigo, which was used by the ancient Greeks and Romans who named it 'indikon' or 'indicum' as the dye was imported from India). The identification and the isolation of the metal is credited to Ferdinand Reich and Hieronymus Theodor Richter in 1867.
Iodine is named after the Greek word 'iodes' meaning 'violet' because of the colour of gaseous iodine. Iodine is (at room temperature) a dark shiny solid with a very low vapour pressure, which means it emanates gaseous iodine already at low temperatures. Iodine was isolated by Barnard Courtois in 1811.
Iridium derives from the Latin word 'iris' meaning 'rainbow' because it forms salts in many different colours. It was isolated and identified in 1803 by Smithson Tennant and independently by HV Collet-Descotils.
Iron was known of from ancient times and its name is of Anglo-Saxon origin. The symbol 'Fe' is derived from the Latin word 'ferrum' for 'iron'.
Krypton is a so-called noble gas, and is present in atmospheric air only in traces (0.0001 %). It is hidden, so to speak, in the air. The Greek word for 'hidden' (or 'concealed') is 'kryptos' after which the element was named. It was identified and isolated by William Ramsay in 1898, long before the first Superman comics came about (Also see Noble Gases - History and The Effects of Krypton on Your Voice).
Lanthanum occurs mixed in rare-earth bearing minerals; it kind of 'lies hidden' in these minerals. From that facet the lanthanum bearing mineral had been named lanthana, after the Greek word 'lanthanein' which means 'to lie hidden'. Lanthana was isolated and identified by Carl Gustav Mosander in 1839.
Lawrencium is named after Ernest O Lawrence, who invented the cyclotron. The element is the last in the row of the actinoids and has been synthesised by Albert Ghiorso and co-workers and, independently, by Georgi N Flerov and co-workers during the 1960s. Both teams were credited with the identification of this element in 1971. The original symbol 'Lw' was replaced by 'Lr' because the letter 'w' is not so common worldwide.
Lead has been known from antiquity. The Anglo-Saxon word 'lead' is of unknown origin. The symbol 'Pb' comes from the Latin word for 'lead', 'plumbum'.
Lithium was thought to exist only in mineral rocks and is named after the Greek word 'lithos' for 'rock or stone'. It was identified by mineralogist Johan August Arfvedson in 1817 or 1818 in the mineral petalite. Robert Bunsen isolated Lithium in 1855.
Lutetium is named after 'lutetia', the Latin name of Paris. The naming process of an element is nicely exemplified in the story of this element's name. Auer von Welsbach isolated, identified and published the results for this element, which he called 'cassiopeium' (after the constellation 'Cassiopeia') in early 1907. George Urbain did the same, but his paper only appeared in late 1907 and he called the element 'lutecium' (with 'c' from the old French name lutéce ). The German Chemical Societies and naming committees took 'cassiopeium' whereas their French counterparts adopted 'lutecium'. The International Committee on Atomic Weights ended up adopting the name 'lutecium'. Urbain might have influenced this decision, as he was one of the four members of this committee. The controversy in the scientific community was huge. In 1949 all the nomenclature was to become official, and IUPAC decided to use 'lutetium' (now with a 't') as it was worldwide the most commonly used name.
Magnesium is named after Magnesia, a region in Thessaly, Greece. Compounds of magnesium have long been known about. Magnesium was identified as an element in 1755 by Joseph Black, and was isolated in 1808 by Sir Humphry Davy.
Maganese from 'magnes' Latin for 'magnet', because of the magnetic properties of pyrolusite, in which manganese occurs. 'Magnes' in turn, like the name 'magnesium' is a corrupt form of Magnesia in Greece. It was identified by Carl-Wilhelm Scheele in 1774 and isolated in the same year by Johan Gottlieb Gahn.
Mendelevium was named in honour of Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev. It is a synthetic element and was obtained by Albert Ghiorso, Glenn T Seaborg and co-workers between 1955 and 1958.
Mercury was named after planet/deity Mercury - this name dates back to the good old days of alchemy. The symbol 'Hg' originates from the Latin name of the element, 'hydrargyrum', meaning 'liquid silver' because mercury is, at room temperature, a liquid silvery metal. It has been known of since antiquity.
Molybdenum comes from 'molybdos', which is Greek for 'lead' - as any dark, heavy metal that left marks on paper was called 'lead' in ancient times. It was also often confused with real lead. Carl Wilhelm Scheele demonstrated that molybdenum is an element in 1778. It was isolated in its pure form in 1782 by Peter-Jakob Hjelm. The original spelling was 'molybdaenum' but the 'ae' was dropped in favour of the more common 'e'. Also the ending is not 'typical' and was to be changed to '-nium' with the 'i' in 1949. However, by then the most common spelling was without the 'i', so IUPAC decided to leave the 'i' out.
Neodymium comes from 'neo didymos' and means 'new twin'. But why? It all started with the discovery that a new mineral always occurred together with lanthanum in another mineral called cerite. This mineral would contain an element, which would be - figuratively speaking - lanthanum's twin. Hence Carl Gustav Mosander, who discovered all this, suggested calling the element 'didymium' in 1841. Later on, in 1885, Carl Auer von Welsbach found out that the so-called 'didymium' could be separated into further two elements, one of which he therefore called the 'new twin' or 'neodymium'. The other one he called 'praseodymium', but this will be discussed later.
Neon is a noble gas and was isolated and identified by William Ramsay in 1898. Ramsay named it after the Greek word for 'new', 'neos', because it was then a 'new' noble gas in the series.
Neptunium was synthesised by Edwin McMillan and Philip Abelson in 1940. It is a rather stable (it has a half-life of two million years) radioactive element, and it was named after its position after uranium in the periodic table, because the planet neptune also comes 'after' uranus. Neptune is the Roman god of the sea.
Nickel is, like cobalt, named after a German goblin, 'Nickl' or 'Nickel'. Nickel often occurs as a shiny mineral containing arsenic. When processed, however, the mineral does not yield any 'useful' precious metal, but toxic garlic stench instead (from the arsenic compounds). Nickel was identified by Alexander Cronstedt in 1751, and characterised by Tornbern Bergmann.
Niobium is named after 'Niobe' the daughter of 'Tantalus' in Greek mythology, because niobium is the lighter homologue of tantalum in the periodic table. These elements were initially thought to be identical. The story started in 1801 when Charles Hatchett identified a new element which he called columbium as he found it in a mineral called columbite (after Christopher Columbus, because it was originally found in America). One year later, tantalum was discovered (in another mineral) and, because of the nearly identical chemistry of both elements it was postulated that columbium and tantalum were identical. Years later in 1846 Heinrich Rose showed that columbium and tantalum were distinct elements. On this occasion he renamed columbium to 'niobium'. The element was isolated in 1864 by Christian Wilhelm Blomstrand, who also adopted Rose's nomenclature. Meanwhile, in America, the scientific community stuck to the original designation and called the element 'columbium'. The discussion ended in 1949 when IUPAC decided to use 'niobium' as the element's official name, as it was the most common designation found internationally.
Nitrogen was identified as a component of air in the 1770s by Carl Scheele, Herny Cavendish, Joseph Priestley and Daniel Rutherford. Antoine Lavoisier originally called the element 'azote' as nitrogen does not support life (from Greek 'azotikon'); the German word 'Stickstoff' follows the same logic (from 'ersticken', 'to suffocate'). In 1790 the French chemist Jean Antoine Chaptal found out that nitrogen is present in saltpeter, and came up with the alternative name 'nitrogen', which is derived from the Greek words 'nitron' and 'gennan' meaning 'saltpeter' and 'to generate', respectively. This name eventually replaced 'azote' and found worldwide acceptance (except for Germany and France).
Nobelium was named after Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite and founder of the Nobel Prize. It was originally named in 1957 by a group of scientists affiliated to the Argonne National Laboratory in the USA, Harwell Atomic Energy Research Establishment in England and the Swedish Nobel Institute of Physics, who thought to have synthesised element 102. The first synthesis nowadays is usually credited to the group of Georgi Flerov in Russia and to the group of Glenn T Seaborg and Albert Ghiorso in USA - both in 1958. The name Nobelium was retained by the IUPAC-CNIC as it was already being widely used in the scientific literature.