Why Are Noble Gases Called Noble?

Neon is a noble gas that is used in signs and lasers.
Neon is a noble gas that is used in signs and lasers. Ray Laskowitz, Getty Images

Why are the noble gases called noble? It's considered a noble characteristic if you don't react when provoked — to turn up your nose and ignore lesser mortals or have too much dignity to react. Noble gases have completely filled outer electron shells, so they don't have any inclination to react with other elements. These elements are most often found as monatomic gases. They very rarely form compounds with other elements.

Just like you can push a nobleman into losing his dignity, it's possible to get a noble gas to react. If you supply enough energy, you can ionize the outer electrons of a noble gas. 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 heaxafluoride (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 last column of elements in the periodic table are the noble gases. They are called Group 18, the inert gases, the rare gases, the helium family, or the neon family. There are 7 elements in this group: helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon. These elements are gases at ordinary room temperature and pressure. The 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).