Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Language of Chemistry


Beginning students of chemistry encounter chemical symbols which bear little resemblance to their English names. The roots of several common and especially more historical elements caught my fancy, just as other Latin words buried in English did earlier. link

Several names and symbols come from Latin:
  • Sb stands for antimony which comes from the Latin Stibium. The Italians still call antimony stibio. We did too until the Middle Ages. link
  • Cu for copper comes from Cuprum, which is related to the word Cyprus, an ancient source of copper for the Romans.
  • Fe for iron comes from Ferrum. The Italians call their railroads la ferrovia and Spanish calls hardware ferreteria (cf. bilingual signs at Home Depot). English has the vestigial word, farrier.
  • Au for gold comes from Aurum.  We've lost that word in English except for some pretentious words like aureate, aurelia, aureole and the like.
  • Pb for lead comes from Plumbum. There are lots of English cognates, including plumbago, plumbing, plumb lines and plumb bobs.
  • Hg for mercury comes from hydrargyrum. That's confusing because at first glance it could be water-silver. But "hydra" is more generic and means liquid. Mercury used to be called quicksilver which sort of conveys the same notion as hydrargyrum.
  • Ag for silver comes from Argentum. The French still call money l'argent.
A couple names look like Latin but are neologisms coined by Sir Humphry Davy:
  • K for potassium comes from Kalium which derives from Arabic al-kali.
  • Na for sodium comes from Natrium. The Germans still use both words Natrium and Kalium; they never adopted sodium and potassium. I guess they weren't as impressed with Davy as we were.
  • Sn for tin comes from the Latin Stannum. There is some irony here.  The word Stannum is Latin but appears to derive from Irish or Welsh. The Romans got their tin from the British Isles.  Tin is still mined in Cornwall.
  • W for Tungsten comes from an older name, Wolfram, which is still used by the Germans. Tungsten derives from Swedish tung heavy + sten stone. 

No comments:

Post a Comment