Elemental places

By | September 25, 2013

A surprising number of chemical elements are named for places. (Well, it surprised me, anyway.)

Many of the elements that have been identified since the late 18th century are named for their places of discovery. Would you have guessed that more of these elements are named for Scandinavia or Scandinavian cities than for any other geographical location? One town, Ytterby, accounts for no fewer than four of the names: erbium, terbium, ytterbium, and yttrium. There is also hafnium (from Hafnia, the Latin name for Copenhagen), holmium (from Holmia, or Stockholm), scandium (from Scandia, or Scandinavia), and thulium (from another ancient name for Scandinavia, or the far north: Thule).

Here are the other “modern” elements named for places:

  • The continent of Europe has its namesake, Europium.
  • Francium and gallium (from the Latin Gallia) are named for France, although the latter may also a pun on the middle name of its discoverer, Paul-Émile Lecoq de Boisbaudran; le coq, French for rooster, is gallus (chicken) in Latin. Lutetium comes from Lutetia, the Latin name for what would become Paris.
  • Germanium, of course, is named for Germany, and Hassium comes from the Latin name for Hesse in Germany. Rhenium is named for a river, the Rhine (Rhenus in Latin), and Darmstadtium is named for the city of its discovery, Darmstadt.
  • Polonium is named for Poland, the homeland of its discoverer, Marie Curie.
  • Strontium is named for the small town of Strontian, Scotland, where the first specimen known to contain it was found in a lead mine.
  • Ruthenium comes from the Latin name for Russia, Ruthenia. Dubnium is named for the Russian research institute where it was discovered.
  • Four elements are named for locales in the US. The series of names Berkelium, Californium, and Americium reads like a peculiar rendering of an address. Berkelium is joined by Livermorium, named only last year for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

A couple of the element names have a longer history:

  • Copper takes its name from Cyprus (Kupros to the Greeks), which was a huge source of copper in ancient times. (It’s possible, however, that the island took its name from the metal.) The Latin Cyprium aes (metal from Cyprus) was shortened to cuprum (which accounts for the Cu on the periodic table).
  • As I noted in an earlier post, The Magnetes legacy, magnesium and manganese both take their names from an area in ancient Greece called Magnesia.

This may seem a bit of a stretch, but astronomical objects can be considered places too. (Just ask any astronaut who’s been to the moon.) The following elements are named for places in the solar system:

  • Helium was first identified from its lines in the solar spectrum, and its name comes from the Greek name for the sun, helios.
  • Tellurium comes from the Latin tellus, or Earth. Selenium resembles tellurium and is named, by analogy, for the moon, although selene is the Greek word for the moon, not the Latin word.
  • Cerium and palladium are named for the first and second asteroids ever discovered, Ceres and Pallas, which were each discovered a couple of years before their respective elements.
  • Uranium, neptunium, and plutonium are named for the planets Uranus and Neptune and the dwarf planet Pluto. The celestial objects in turn take their names from the Greek god of the sky, the Roman god of the sea, and the Greek god of the underworld. (Mercury the planet and Mercury the element were both named for the Roman god Mercury, so Mercury the element is not named for the planet.)

And finally, how about a place named for an element? Argentina got its name from the Latin word for silver, argentum.

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