How Are Elements Named?

Chemical elements

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Do you know which element is azote, with the symbol Az? Element names are not the same in every country. Many countries have adopted the element names that have been agreed upon by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). According to the IUPAC, "elements can be named after a mythological concept, a mineral, a place or country, a property, or a scientist".

Until relatively recently, if you looked at the periodic table, you would see some of the higher numbered elements only numbers instead of names or else their names were just another way of saying the number (e.g., Ununoctium for element 118, which is now named oganesson). The discovery of these elements hadn't been sufficiently documented for the IUPAC to feel a name is justified yet, or else there was a dispute over who gets credit for the discovery (and the honor of selecting an official name). So, how did the elements get their names and why are they different on some periodic tables?

Key Takeaways: How Elements Are Named

  • Official element names and symbols are determined by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC).
  • However, elements often have common names and symbols in various countries.
  • Elements don't gain official names and symbols until after their discovery has been verified. Then, a name and symbol may be proposed by the discoverer.
  • Some element groups have naming conventions. Halogen names end with -ine. Except for helium, noble gas names end with -on. Most other element names end with -ium.

Early Element Names

Early humans couldn't distinguish between elements and compounds. The earliest elements included things that were mixtures, such as air and fire. People had various names for true elements. Some of these regional differences converged into accepted names, but old symbols persist. For example, the name for gold is universal, but its symbol is Au, which reflects an earlier name of aurum. Sometimes countries held onto old names. So, Germans may call hydrogen "Wasserstoff" for "water substance" or nitrogen may be called "Stickstoff" for "smothering substance." People who speak romance languages called nitrogen "azote" or "azot" from words which mean "no life."

IUPAC International Names

Eventually, it made sense to establish an international system for naming elements and assigning their symbols. The IUPAC set up official names of chemical elements, drawing on the English language. So, the official name for the element with atomic number 13 became aluminum. The official name for element 16 became sulfur. The official names are used in international publications, but it's still common to see researchers using names accepted in their home countries. Most of the world calls element 13 aluminium. Sulphur is an accepted name for sulfur.

Naming Rules and Conventions

Certain rules apply to the usage of element names:

  • Element names are not proper nouns. When the IUPAC name is used, it is written in lowercase letters unless the name begins a sentence.
  • Element symbols are one- or two-letter symbols. The first letter is capitalized. The second letter is lowercase. An example is the symbol for chromium, which is Cr.
  • Halogen element names have an -ine ending. Examples include chlorine, bromine, astatine, and tennessine.
  • Nobel gas names end with -on. Examples include neon, krypton, and oganesson. The exception to this rule is the name of helium, which predates the convention.
  • Newly discovered elements may be named for a person, place, mythological reference, property, or mineral. Examples include einsteinium (named for Albert Einstein), californium (named for California), helium (named for the sun god Helios), and calcium (named for the mineral calyx).
  • Elements are named by their official discoverer. In order for an element to get an name, its discovery must be verified. In the past, this has led to considerable controversy, as the identity of the discoverer has been debated.
  • Once an element discovery is confirmed, the person or lab responsible for the discovery submits a proposed name and symbol to the IUPAC. The name and symbol aren't always approved. Sometimes this is because the symbol is too close to another well known abbreviation or else the name doesn't follow other conventions. So, the symbol for tennessine is Ts and not Tn, which closely resembles the state abbreviation TN.