Why Are Noble Gases Called Noble?

Neon -- an easily-recognized noble gas
Ray Laskowitz, Getty Images

Why are the noble gases called noble? The ability to avoid reacting when provoked -- to turn up one's nose and ignore lesser human foibles -- is largely considered a noble trait in humans. 

What amounts to a constant pursuit for humans just comes naturally to noble gases. Noble gases, most often found as monatomic gases, have completely filled outer electron shells, so have no inclination to react with other elements, thus very rarely forming compounds with other elements.

However, just as a nobleman can be pushed into losing his dignity, getting a noble gas to react is possible. With a great enough energy supply, the outer electrons of a noble gas can be ionized, and once the gas is ionized, it can accept electrons from other elements. Even under these conditions, noble gases do not form many compounds. Only a few hundred are known to exist. Examples include xenon hexafluoride (XeF6) and argon fluorohydride (HArF).

Fun Fact

The term "noble gas" comes from the translation of the German word Edelgas. Noble gases have had their own special name since as early as 1898. 

More About the Noble Gas Elements

The noble gases make up the last column of elements in the periodic table. They are commonly called Group 18, the inert gases, the rare gases, the helium family, or the neon family. The group consists of 7 elements: helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon. These elements are gases at ordinary room temperature and pressure. Noble gases are characterized by:

  • low reactivity
  • low boiling point
  • melting and boiling point close to each other (liquid over a narrow range)
  • very low electronegativity
  • high ionization energy
  • usually colorless and odorless
  • gases under ordinary conditions

The lack of reactivity makes these elements useful for many applications. They can be used to shield reactive chemicals from oxygen. They are ionized for use in lamps and lasers.

A comparable set of elements are the noble metals, which display low reactivity (for metals).