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Question Why are some elements on the Periodic Table represented by letters that have no clear connection to their names?

Answer

Some elements were known in ancient times and therefore carry over their Latin names.

Periodic Table. 2019. Photo by N. Hanacek. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).


There are eleven elements represented in the periodic table by letters not in line with their names:

  • Sodium (Na – Natrium)
  • Potassium (K – Kalium)
  • Iron (Fe – Ferrum)
  • Copper (Cu – Cuprum)   
  • Silver (Ag – Argentum)
  • Tin (Sn – Stannum)
  • Antimony (Sb – Stibium)
  • Tungsten (W – Wolfram)
  • Gold (Au – Aurum)
  • Mercury (Hg – Hydrargyrum)   
  • Lead (Pb – Plumbum)

Nearly all of these elements were known in ancient times and therefore carry over their Latin names.  Some of the names also led to other words that are common in the English language.  For example, plumbum, Latin for Lead (Pb), is where we get the words plumber and plumbing, because lead was used in water supply pipes for centuries.

Other names have different origins.  For instance, hydrargyrum, the Latin name for Mercury (Hg), was taken from the original Greek hydrargyros, which meant “water silver.”  Also historically known as “quicksilver,” elemental mercury is a shiny silver metal that is liquid at room temperature.

Table of types of elements and explanation of plates showing various chemical elements and their atomic weights. Between 1808-1827. In A new system of chemical philosophy by John Dalton. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Tungsten gets its W symbol from its German name Wolfram.  Wolfram comes from wolframite, which was one of the ores in which tungsten was most often found.  The name Tungsten itself is actually Swedish and translates into English as “heavy stone.”

The word potassium stems from the English “pot ash,” which was used to isolate potassium salts.  We get K from the name kalium, given by the German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth, which stemmed from alkali, which stemmed from the Arabic al-qalyah,  or “plant ashes.”

The etymology of element names can take you on a fantastic adventure and you might be surprised by where you end up.  Check out the further reading section for books on the history of chemical elements. 

Periodic Table of Elements.  PubChem, U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM), National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Institutes of Health.

Published: 5/5/2020. Author: Science Reference Section, Library of Congress

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