The Curious Etymology Of The Elements

It’s not often that the worlds of lexicography and technology collide, but in a video by the etymologist [RobWords] we may have found a rare example. In a fascinating 16-minute video he takes us through the origins of the names you’ll find in the periodic table. Here’s a word video you don’t have to be on the staff of a dictionary to appreciate!

Etymology is a fascinating study, in which the scholar must disentangle folk etymologies and mistaken homophones to find the true root of a word. Fortunately in the case of most elements they bear a name bestowed on them by the scientists who discovered them, so their etymologies are rarely in dispute.

The etymologies split neatly into categories, with among them such distinctions as Latin or Greek descriptions, places including the Swedish village of Ytterby which has more elements named after it than anywhere else, elements named for mythological figures, and those named for people.

He artfully skates over the distinction between aluminium and a curiously similar metal the Americans call aluminum, because etymologists are used to deflecting controversy when language differences colour, or even color, people’s emotions. Thank you, Noah Webster!

It’s an entertaining diversion for anyone with a love of both science and of language, and should remind us that the study of language has just as much scientific rigour in its research as any of those elements.

Cupcake periodic table: Science History Institute, CC BY-SA 3.0.

34 thoughts on “The Curious Etymology Of The Elements

  1. Aluminum.

    Can we really trust a nation that lost a global empire to bureaucratic decay to dictate the correct pronunciation of a word? Have you been to Hackney? Two out of three words are gibberish… even to the inhabitants. At the core of Britannia!


    1. OK, I’ll bite.

      Can we really trust a nation that pronounces solder as sodder?
      Can we really trust a nation that calls paracetamol acetaminophen, despite the former being the International Non-proprietary Name, as designated by the WHO and used by the rest of the world?
      Can we really trust a nation that lost a spacecraft by not being able to correctly use the metric system, like 95% of the rest of the world?
      Can we really trust a nation that still uses Fahrenheit instead of Celsius, like 99% of the rest of the world?
      Can we really trust a nation that is not smart enough to use a 24 hour clock?
      Can we really trust a nation that is not capable of ordering dates in a hierarchical manner: day-month-year?



      1. “Can we really trust a nation that lost a spacecraft by not being able to correctly use the metric system, like 95% of the rest of the world?”

        Hey! That’s just mean. We love our measuring system based on the sizes of assorted body parts.

        1. They used the Apollo guidance computer to get there, which was programmed with SI units. It showed and accpted its information in imperial units so that the American astronauts could use it.
          BTW, the American NIST adopted the metric system a long time ago. The definition of an inch is determined by SI units : 1 inch is 25.4mm.

        1. If you first need to ask what year is it now, you may have brain problems.

          In many elderly care homes, it’s common practice to have a keypad lock on the front door; the pass key is the current year.

      2. After all these years, I’m still confused on why America still uses the English system and doesn’t go for metric. Same with the English that uses a mixed system. Drill sizes in fractions, really? You take out a calculator to find the right drill size? It’s really confusing for me. And the other weird ones, furlongs? chains? rods? The US is officially metric (every English measurement is using metric for it’s definition, according to NIST), but in public it’s still using the English system. It doesn’t make sense. And then they use an ancient Dutch system for temperature to top it off.

        1. Well, I always have two one-foot measuring devices along with me, so that’s handy. Also I have “number drills” which are apparently sized by some kind of magic no one understands. At least it’s not Whitworth.

      3. “Can we really trust a nation that still uses Fahrenheit instead of Celsius, like 99% of the rest of the world?”

        I don’t trust anyone that doesn’t use Kelvin, it at least starts at a reasonable place.

    2. On a more serious note:

      British English: aluminium
      German: aluminium
      Swedish: aluminium
      Danish: aluminium
      Norwegian: aluminium
      French: aluminium
      Dutch: aluminium
      Afrikaans: aluminium
      Spanish: aluminio (and not alumino)
      Portuguese: aluminio (and not alumino)
      Italian: alluminio (and not allumino)
      Russian: alyuminiy
      Polish: aluminium
      Hungarian: alumínium
      Arabic: al’ aluminyum

      So sorry Yanks, it’s aluminium.

      1. Apparently we (don’t know if we means Uk or whole of Europe) did a deal with the yanks, we agreed to go illiterate and have that yellow stuff be Sulfur, and they’d agree to accept that aircraft structures are made from Aluminium. They never held up their end of the deal. Not only must we ensure Aluminium is always pronounced properly, we must also return Sulphur to its rightful spelling.

      2. Polish name for the chemical element is actually “glin”, so, umm, clayium or something like that. But fiiiine, “aluminium” (with the “i”) is used in the engineering context.

    3. Hilarious text chain. Interesting if you want to go with what the discoverer called it (see below) or what societies called it, nationalism aside. To fuel the fire:

      In 1808, Sir Humphry Davy identified the existence of the metal in alum, which he at first named “alumium” and later “aluminum.” Davy proposed the name aluminum when referring to the element in his 1812 book Elements of Chemical Philosophy, despite his previous use of “alumium.” The official name “aluminium” was adopted to conform with the -ium names of most other elements.”

  2. The one time where “old” would finally apply, you didn’t use it. It’s funny how people would never say that about a system like the periodic table, because it’s really not relevant. But so it isn’t in many other cases where people talk about “old” tech which isn’t actually old, just outdated, neither of which matters though.

  3. @Nada:
    >Can we really trust a nation that has been to the moon?
    Ah, but did they really or were we really just watching a carefully constructed set in a Hollywood basement?

    1. Let me set the record straight.

      NASA hired the best film director they could afford, at time, for the moon landing fake; Mr. Stanley Kubrick.

      Who then promptly insisted that they film it on location.

  4. @Jouka:
    Whoa, dude that’s just mean.
    We’re not intellectually deficient.
    And you’re supposed to make tea by boiling a kettle and putting the teabag in a mug/cup of water, not dumping it in Boston Harbour.

  5. Is anyone else REALLY annoyed by the errrors in the top image of this webpage. That display marks Mercury as a gas at room-temperature-and-pressure, says we don’t know what state Osmium has (it is rare, but there’s enough mined to know it is solid at RTP). Thinks Zinc and Cadmium are RTP liquids… If that peiodic table display is, as I suspect, an array of cakes, then with the level of understanding that the baker in question shows, I wouldn’t trust the baker in question not to have put all manner of unwelcome elements in to them.

    1. No, no one else is. The cheese stands alone on that island. I’m ANNOYED that you fnord don’t fnord know that the correct fnord term is Standard Temperature and Pressure. fnord

  6. As someone who taught college/uni chemistry for 42 years and coauthored two editions of one textbook and five of another, the definitive answer is…

    …it’s Al.

    You’re welcome. ;-)

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