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The Elements: Names and Origins - O-Z

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The Elements: Names and Origins
Introduction | A to E | F to N | O to Z
Earth, air, fire and water - the elements before the discovery of a few more.



Osmium was identified in 1803 by Smithson Tennent. Its oxide is volatile and has a sharp smell. For this reason the element was named after the Greek word 'osme' meaning 'smell'.



Oxygen was identified in the 1770s by Joseph Priestley and Carl-Wilhelm Scheele. Priestley is credited with the identification of the element because he published his results first, in 1774, whereas Scheele's publication was delayed and only appeared in 1777. The name was given by Antoine Lavoisier in 1776, who thought oxygen was responsible for the acidity of acids (see The History of Acids and Bases). 'Oxein' is the Greek word for 'sour' and 'gennan' means 'to form, to generate'. Oxygen had been isolated before by many scientists - for example, it is known that Oluf Bayen and Pierre Borch prepared oxygen in the early 1730s. They did not, however, recognise oxygen as an element. Even older descriptions of oxygen - as a component of air - are known, as references by Leonardo da Vinci, Empedocles and the 8th Century Chinese philosopher Mao Khoa demonstrate.



Palladium was named in 1803 after Pallas the asteroid, which was discovered in 1802 and is itself named after Pallas Athene, the Greek goddess of art and wisdom. The identification is credited to William Wollaston.



Phosphorus was isolated in 1669 by Henning Brandt from urine. Brandt noticed that the element glows in the dark and thus gave it the name 'phosphorus' which is derived from the Greek for 'light-bearing'.



Platinum was known of and used by pre-Columbian Indians. Spanish mathematician Don Antonio de Ulloa named the metal 'platina' meaning 'silver-like' or 'little silver' in 1748. The metal had been noticed earlier by explorers of the New World, but was not considered to have any value. A sample of this metal was described in 1557 by Julius Caesar Scaliger. The metal was isolated in its pure form in 1750 by William Brownrigg. The identification of the metal as being a new element is usually credited to Sir William Watson, also in 1750.



Plutonium is named after planet Pluto, which is named after Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld. The naming follows the same order as with the planets Uranus, Neptune and Pluto which were the inspiration behind the names of the elements. In the periodic table the order is the same: uranium, neptunium and plutonium. Plutonium occurs in traces in uranium ores, most plutonium, however, is prepared synthetically in nuclear reactors. It was synthesised for the first time by Glenn T Seaborg, Edwin McMillan, Joseph Kennedy and Arthur Wahl in 1940.



Polonium is named after Poland, the native country of Marie Curie who identified the element with Pierre Curie in 1898.



Potassium is named after 'pot-ash' or Dutch 'pot-aschen'. Plant ashes, which were obtained by burning vegetal material in a pot, contain sodium and potassium carbonate, two alkaline compounds often used to make soap. The symbol K is derived from the Latin word 'kalium' which comes from the Arab word 'alqali' which means 'to roast' (ie, plants in pots). Potassium was known for a long time in the form of potassium carbonate, but it was identified as an element and isolated for the first time in 1807 by Humphry Davy. 'Potassium' is used in English, Celtic and Italic languages whereas 'Kalium' is used by most other languages.



Praseodymium comes from 'praseios' which is Greek for 'light green' and 'didymos' which is Greek for 'twin'. Praseodymium is therefore the 'greenish twin'. Twin? The story is rather long, because many of the so-called rare-earth metals occur together as a mixture. Before the entire mixture was separated into all its elements, a sub-mixture was isolated by Carl Gustav Mosander in the 1840s. Mosander believed that it contained an element, which he called 'didymium' (ie, twin) because it always occurred together with lanthanum. Some other folks thought it was named 'twin' because all his children were born as twins. In 1885, Carl Auer von Welsbach managed to separate this didymium into two further elements, one of which he called 'the new twin' (see neodymium) and the other one 'praseodymium' because of the greenish colour of its oxide.



Promethium was long sought-after, and with the implementation of the periodic table it already had its place as element 61 in the row of the rare-earth metals. However, it had never been isolated or identified in any mineral. All claims of 'discovery' were discarded in 1941 when it was shown that the element does not occur in natural minerals. Instead it was prepared synthetically in 1945 by Charles D Coryell, Jacob A Marinsky, Lawrence E Glendenin and Harold G Richter. They named it after the mythological figure Prometheus, who stole fire from the Gods and was punished - an allusion to the pros and cons of nuclear reactions.



Protactinium has been, since 1949, shorthand for 'protoactinium'. The name describes its decay to actinium ('proto' is Greek for 'first'). The element was identified by Kasimir Fajans and Otto H Göhring in 1913.



Radium was isolated and identified by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898. They named it 'radium' because its radiation is millions of times stronger than anything they had observed before.



Radon was observed by many of those scientists studying radioactivity at the turn of the 19th Century. The first clear mention of this element is found in Pierre and Marie Curie's work. They observed a gas emanating from a radium solution, which they called 'Radium Emanation' which later on mutated to 'radon'. Other scientists soon found that thorium and actinium solutions also produced a radioactive gaseous emanation, called thoron and actinon, respectively. It became clear only in 1910 that these emanations were the same element. Ramsay suggested calling it 'niton' (from Latin 'nitens' meaning 'to shine'). However, in 1949, when all nomenclature had to become official, 'radon' was the most widely-used name for this element, and was therefore kept.



Rhenium is named after the river Rhine and the Rhineland, Germany, where Ida Eva Tacke was born. The element was identified by Masataka Ogawa in 1908, and originally called 'nipponium'. The story goes like this: The periodic table was already an established piece of work in the early 1900s. However, it still had some gaps in it for elements that had not been discovered. In that time, elements 43 and 75 were among the last elements missing in the main table. Ogawa isolated the metal but erroneously assigned it to element 43 instead of 75. Later on in 1925, Walter Noddack and Ida Eva Tacke, who later became Mrs Noddack, announced the identification of the two missing elements, which they called 'masurium' (43) and 'rhenium' (75) after the places of their births. The identification of masurium was never confirmed.



Rhodium forms rose-coloured compounds. William Hyde Wollaston identified the element in 1803 and noticed that property. He therefore called the element 'rhodium' from the Greek word 'rhodon' for 'rose'.



Rubidium has deep-red emission lines in its spectrum. These lines were used by Gustav Kirchhoff and Robert Bunsen to identify the element in 1861. For that reason it was named after the Latin word 'rubidis' for 'deep-red'. Bunsen isolated the metal in 1863.



Ruthenium was isolated in 1828 from platinum ore by a Russian chemist called Gottfried Osann, who called it 'ruthenium' after the Latin word for Russia, 'Ruthenia'. He withdrew his claim of 'discovery'. In 1844 Karl Klaus, another Russian, showed that Osann had been right, and retained the name for the element.



Samarium is a rare-earth metal found mixed together with other rare-earth metals in many minerals. It was named after the mineral samarskite, in which it occurs. Samarskite is named after Colonel von Samarski, a Russian mine officer. Samarium was identified in 1879 by Lecoq de Boisbaudran.



Scandium was found in an ytterbium containing mineral from Scandinavia (hence the rather obvious name) by Lars-Frederik Nilson in 1879.



Selenium is a metal and it was isolated in 1817 by Jöns Jakob Berzelius while he was trying to purify tellurium (another metal). Since tellurium is named after the Roman goddess of the earth Telles, the new element was named after the Greek goddess of the moon, Selene.



Silicon is named after the Latin world for the mineral flint, 'silex' or 'silicis', in which it occurs. It was isolated from flint by Jöns Jakob Berzelius in 1824. It was originally named 'silicium' with the suffix '-ium' to emphasise it is a metal. Later it was proven that silicium is not a metal, and for that reason the suffix was replaced by '-on' to avoid confusion.



Silver was used widely as far back as prehistoric times. The old Sanskrit word 'argunas', meaning 'shining brightly', mutated into the Latin word 'argentum' from which the symbol 'Ag' is derived. The word 'silver' is of obscure Anglo-Saxon origin.



Sodium had been known for a long time in the form of soda (sodium carbonate). The term 'soda', which was used by Humphry Davy as the basis to call the element he had isolated in 1807 from soda, sodium, comes from the Latin term sodanum which means 'remedy for headache', which was one of the things the Romans used soda for. The white powder itself, which was also successfully employed to make soap, was called natrum by the Romans, which is why the element's symbol is Na. In most languages, except for English and Italic languages, the element is also called natrium. The term 'natrum', used by the Romans, has Arabic roots and was originally from the Egyptian word for soda, which is spelled like this: 'nTrj'. Nitre (or saltpeter) which gave origin to the name 'nitrogen', has the same root here.



Strontium had been recognised by Thomas Hope in 1792 in a mineral called strontianite, which occurs near the Scottish town of Strontian (which gives the element its name). Humphry Davy isolated the metal in 1808.



Sulphur was known from ancient times. The official spelling changed from 'sulphur' to 'sulfur' because most people didn't want to use the 'ph'. The origin of the English word is the Latin word 'sulphurium' which comes from Sanskrit 'sulveri'. Louis Thenard and Louis Gay-Lussac showed that sulphur was an element in 1809.



Tantalum is not soluble in acids. It was isolated and named by Anders Ekeberg in 1802: Ekeberg must have had a fertile imagination and was obviously versed in Greek mythology. He named the element after Tantalos, the father of Niobe (see niobium, above), who was banished to Hades, where he was placed up to his chin in water, directly beneath branches of fruit. Whenever Tantalos raised or lowered his head to pick a fruit or to drink the water, the branches would draw back and the water would recede. He was not able to eat or drink anything, just as the element is not able to take up any acid. Now that was far-fetched, wasn't it?



Technetium was a long sought-after element. Claims for its 'discovery' date back to 1828. None of the claims, however, were ever confirmed. It was finally synthesised in 1937 by Emilio Segre and Carlo Perrier, and is thus an artificial element. The element was named after the Greek word techous which means 'artificial'. Originally it was to be called 'panormium' after the Latin word for Palermo, where it was synthesized. Segre and Perrier, however, did not like the idea and opted for a more neutral term.



Tellurium was named after the Roman goddess of the earth, Telles. It was identified by mine director Franz Müller von Richtenstein in 1782, working in a Transsylvanian mine, as a new 'problematic metal'. Von Richtenstein was not, however, able to characterise it any further. Paul Kitaibel working with Hungarian minerals also found a 'problematic metal', which he couldn't characterise further, in 1789. Both Müller and Kitaibel sent their samples and reports to chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth, who finally concluded that it was a new element in 1798.



Terbium has its name derived form Ytterby, the site of a quarry in Sweden. For more information, see Erbium (above).



Thallium emits a sharp green line in its emission spectrum, and was named after the Greek word for 'twig', thallos. It was identified in 1861 by William Crookes and isolated in 1862 by Claude-Auguste Lamy.



Thorium forms a mineral called 'thorite' (thorium silicate). The mineral was found on the island of Løvø, Norway by Hans Morten Thrane Esmark, who sent a sample to his father Jens Esmark, who was a geology professor in Norway. He in turn sent a specimen to Jöns-Jakob Berzelius, who found out in 1828 that it was a new mineral and that this new mineral contained a new element. He called the mineral thorite, and the element thorium after Thor, the Nordic god of thunder. The element was isolated from thorite by D Lely Jr and L Hamburger in 1914.



Thulium was named after Thule, which is the old designation for the northern part of what the Greeks thought to be the habitable world, not necessarily Scandinavia. It was identified in 1879 by Per Theodor Cleve, who thought that the Greek designation thule corresponded to Scandinavia. The element was isolated by Charles James in 1911.



Tin was known of as far back as prehistoric times. In antiquity, tin was already recognised as one of the elementary metals. It was used to make an alloy with copper, also known as bronze, which is easier to cast and harder (than copper) in its solid state. Initially, the metal was associated with Jupiter or Zeus and named accordingly, along the lines of 'Jupiter's element'. Later on, the element became named on the basis of it melting easily. The Latin name stannum is connected to the Indo-European fragment stag, also found in 'stagnation' which means 'to drip'. The Latin word stannum is also the origin of the element's symbol 'Sn'. The word mutated somewhat naturally into estanno which gave the Spanish estaño and Portuguese estanho. The French word etain already has the 's' dropped. The German word Zinn comes from reversing 'st' to 'ts', or stinn to tsinn. It is not clear whether the English word 'tin' comes from etain or from Zinn - or from both.



Titanium has its obvious origin in the Titans who were, according to Greek mythology, the first sons of the earth. In 1791, William Gregor found the element in Ilmenite (iron titanate), which he had called menachanite (as the mineral had been discovered by him in the Menachan Valley, Cornwall). The element he thus called menachin, but Gregor was not sure about it. In 1795, Martin Heinrich Klaproth, who knew Gregor's work, confirmed that it was an element. He chose, however, to give it the name titanium - because the element did not have any significant properties (like smell or colour) he could name it after. The metal was isolated by Jöns Jakob Berzelius in 1825.



Tungsten derives from the Swedish tung sten which means 'heavy stone.' Tungsten also used to be the name of the mineral in which the element occurs (calcium wolframate), which forms very heavy stones, bit was it was later known as Scheelite in honour of Carl Wilhelm Scheele. The element also occurs in another mineral called wolframite (iron and manganese wolframate), from which it takes its official symbol and worldwide most common name, wolfram or wolframium (even in Sweden the element is called volfram). The name 'wolframite' comes from the German translation of lupi spuma ('Wolf Rahm') which means 'wolf's foam'. This name was given as during the extraction process it 'eats' tin like a wolf eats sheep. Tungsten was isolated by Don Fausto d'Elhuy in 1783, but it was already identified as an element by Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1781. In 1951 the IUPAC decided to officially name the element 'wolframium', which caused some protest from the scientific community. The protest led IUPAC to reverse its decision and start a revision process for the naming of the element. The issue is still not resolved.



Uranium was identified by Martin-Heinrich Klaproth in 1789. He named it after the planet Uranus, which is named after the Roman deity Uranus. The planet was observed for the first time by William Hershel some years earlier, in 1781. Metallic uranium was obtained for the first time by Eugene Peligot in 1841.



Vanadium forms many different-coloured compounds and was identified in 1830 by Nils-Gabriel Sefstrom in Sweden. For this reason it was named after the Nordic goddess of love and beauty, Freya Vanadis. The element had been observed decades earlier, in 1801, by mineralogist Andres Manuel del Rio y Fernandez, who also noted the colourful variety of compounds formed by vanadium. He called the element erythronium, after the colourful flowers of the plant erythronia. Later, Fernandez suspected that the colourful compounds were in reality due to chromium and withdrew his claims to have identified a new element. Posthumously, the sample Fernadez gave was re-examined and was shown to have contained vanadium. The metal was first isolated in 1869 by Henry Enfield Roscoe.



Xenon was identified quite late on, in 1898, due to technical problems. Xenon is an inert gas, and cannot be isolated using chemical tricks. It has to be distilled out of air, in which it is only present in small amounts. William Ramsay and Morris Travers liquefied air and obtained some of its components by fractional distillation. One of the fractions was liquefied Xenon gas, which they thought was 'strange' and xenos is Greek for 'strange'.



Ytterbium has its name derived form Ytterby, the site of a quarry in Sweden. For more information see Erbium (above).



Yttrium has its name derived form Ytterby, the site of a quarry in Sweden. For more information see Erbium (above).



Zinc was known of as far back as prehistoric times and was available as a metal as early as 1374, but was only identified as an element in 1746 by Andreas Marggraf. Many origins for the name have been suggested. The most plausible is that the name comes from the German word Zink or Zinke which translates to 'tine or sharp edge'. The mineral calamine (zinc carbonate) from which the metal can be obtained has many sharp edges. Another source suggests that 'zink' was used to denote an element that is 'not entirely unlike' Zinn which is the name for tin in German.



Zirconium forms, as a silicate, semi-precious gemstones and has been known about since antiquity. The Persian word zargun, for these stones, meaning gold-like, denotes their yellow-ish colour. In Arabic the 'g' mutated into a 'k' giving the word zarkun. The element was only discovered in 1789 by Martin Heinrich Klaproth who examined a sample of earth coming from Ceylon. His friend and geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner found that the examined batch was mainly zircon (silex circonius), and thus the name of the element was 'zirconium'. The metal was isolated by Jöns Jakob Berzelius in 1824.

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