By Tom Anderson
Look at a Periodic Table and you will see that many of the abbreviations of the chemical elements seem perfectly logical—O for oxygen, H for hydrogen—yet others seem bafflingly unrelated, like Fe for iron, Au for gold or K for potassium. Why is this? And just what do those elements’ names mean anyway? Could they have been different? It’s time once again to delve into the world of alternate terminology.
Where does the idea of elements come from? Most people are familiar with the idea of the Ancient Greeks and their Four Elements (Water, Air, Earth and Fire). These are recurring motifs even today, and though the theories arising from them are now long obsolete, we may still refer to people having a phlegmatic, melancholy, bilious or sanguine personality (originally referring to a medical excess of one of the humours associated with each element) and people in the western world still eat savoury food first followed by a sweet dessert. This is not some sort of universal rule as those people may assume and is not followed in those cultures lacking the idea of the Greek elements and the theory of the four humours arising from them.
The Chinese, meanwhile, instead developed the idea of five elements (adding wood and metal but excluding air). Nowadays people may look down on the Greeks for having ‘only’ four elements when we now know about over 100; but this is to miss the point that words can change their meaning—something worth remembering for this article. To the Greeks, an element referred to the broad nature of a substance, not its precise identity—a much better analogy is to the modern idea of phase states. Things that have the nature of Earth are solids, things that have the nature of Water are liquids, things that have the nature of Air are gases, and (if we want to be extremely charitable with our interpretations) things that have the nature of Fire are plasmas. It is important not to judge past theories by mistakenly assuming that the past theorists were using words to mean precisely the same thing we do—which is an example of what the philosopher of science T.S. Kuhn calls ‘incommensurability’.
Elements in the modern sense, a list of primal types of substance which cannot be separated into any component parts (as compounds, combinations of multiple elements, can) more or less began with Lavoisier and Dalton at the end of the eighteenth and the start of the nineteenth century. These were put into systematic lists and analysed for trends by numerous chemists, most famously Dmitri Mendeleyev, the father of the Periodic Table (which turns 150 in the year 2019).
The idea of atoms, a theoretical smallest possible bit of matter which could not be further cut in half (‘atom’ means ‘uncuttable’), also goes back to the Greeks but as revived in connection with the theory of elements. Atoms still remained a purely theoretical construct, a number-simplifying exercise, right up until the twentieth century—when, ironically, it was found they could be further divided into protons, neutrons and electrons. In fact, it is the number of protons in an atom that defines what element it is (hydrogen has one, while the heaviest element yet discovered, ognesson, has 118). Meanwhile, the electrons are what determine how the atoms interact with each other, whether to form assemblages of a pure substance (only one element) like solid blocks of metal or individual gas molecules, or to combine with other types of atoms from other elements to make compounds.
So where do the names and symbols in the Periodic Table come from? Let’s start with Au for gold and Fe for iron. These seemingly senseless names make sense when one knows that the Latin words for gold and iron are aurum and ferrum respectively. (Latin also explains many of the other abbreviations that look peculiar to an English-speaker; I possess a Romanian periodic table, incidentally, and being perhaps closer to Latin than any other modern language, all the abbreviations make perfect sense…) In fact the words for gold and iron in all languages are thought to be some of the oldest elemental names, or names in general; aurum, gold, and iron are thought to be derived from Proto-Indo-European words for ‘glow, sunrise’, ‘yellow’ and ‘powerful, holy, strong’ respectively. (Ferrum, more unusually, may be a Semitic import into Latin via the Etruscans, as was the word from which we get ‘brass’).
The ancient nature of these names betrays the fact that gold and iron were two substances that have been noted by humans since before civilisation began. Gold is the Noble Metal, which barely reacts with any other substance and thus is found naturally occurring in its pure, beautiful form as nuggets in rivers, and traditionally could only be dissolved by the combination of acids called aqua regia or ‘King’s water’. Iron, on the other hand, is a reactive metal that is oxidised to rust by atmospheric oxygen and is never found exposed on the Earth; but it was found in meteorites containing iron ore where the heat of atmospheric re-entry had effectively smelted the pure iron out. Iron was dubbed ‘the metal that falls from the sky’ by the Ancient Egyptians, and pharaohs were buried in tombs with iron knives with golden hilts as treasures—the iron blade, superior to bronze was considered more valuable than the gold hilt. It was the Hittite Empire that first discovered the secret of how to extract iron from its ore and make weapons from it, and for many years (as recorded in the Bible) the Hittite ‘chariots of iron’ were a feared superweapon that other ancient civilisations of the Near East could not match.
The upshot of this is that gold and iron are two examples of elements that are certainly not going to have different names in any timeline with a point of divergence (POD) within recorded history—though, of course, there might be different symbols in a different Periodic Table. Other elements with seemingly unfitting abbreviations have newer names, though, and sometimes this simply stems from a dispute over whether to use a commonplace name or a more high-faluting Latin or Greek one. Potassium is simply named after the potash (plant ash) from which it was first extracted, a commonplace name, but has the symbol K for Kalium, a name which German chemists preferred (relating to the fact that potash is alkaline). Similarly, sodium is named for soda, but has the symbol Na for Natrium. These disputes could well have gone differently, and often stem from the nationalities of the chemists in question. The Francophone world, Russia and some other language groups still prefer ‘azote’ (Lavoisier’s term) for nitrogen—meaning ‘lifeless’, as a mouse in a bell jar with only nitrogen and no oxygen would die—whereas the rest of the world uses nitrogen, itself meaning ‘maker of nitre’ (nitre being another word for saltpetre). Carl Scheele discovered a number of elements without getting credit, or his preferred names, used, largely due to publishing in the obscure language (for scholars) of Swedish.
The –gen ending, meaning ‘maker’ or ‘former’ in Greek (compare Genesis) is used for a number of elements. Hydrogen was so called because burning it in oxygen-containing air makes water (hydros, H2O). In my alternate history work Look to the West I use ‘Aquaform’ for hydrogen, meaning much the same thing in Latin (and using a structure used for e.g. ‘chloroform’ in OTL) but looking very alien to the reader. The name ‘oxygen’ makes rather less sense, meaning ‘acid former’ as Lavoisier thought (wrongly) that it was a vital component of all acids. The name stuck. Earlier researchers such as Priestley and Scheele (who called it ‘fire air’) had previously discovered oxygen, but had interpreted their findings in the light of the then-prevalent Phlogiston Theory, that flammable substances contained a substance called phlogiston that was released on burning. Lavoisier proved through precise quantitative measurements that burning substances actually gain weight on being burnt—they do not release phlogiston, but combine with oxygen from the air. It seems quite likely that another term for oxygen, likely relating to fire, might have come about in a different timeline.
Helium, on the other hand, was first discovered through spectroscopic studies of the Sun, before it was found on Earth at the top of oil wells. Its name comes from the Greek word for the Sun, helios. Notably this discovery was not formally made until 1895, which explains why Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series uses the name ‘Helium’ for a city on Mars (with the same Sun-related etymology), which now looks strange to our eyes. One alternative name for helium might be ‘coronium’ as it was discovered in the Sun’s corona (an atmospheric layer, meaning crown) specifically. The casual writer might assume a name relating to helium’s properties as a lifting gas, or its effect on the voice, might be chosen—but these were not discovered until years after its presence in the Sun was.
Scientific bodies periodically try to impose more ‘logical’ or systematic names for chemical compounds and elements, with mixed results even just on chemists themselves, never mind the general public who often cheerfully ignore them. Today the supermarket cookery section still stocks bicarbonate of soda and the beauty section sells acetone solvent—not sodium bicarbonate or propan-1-ol. Methanol is often still called ‘wood alcohol’, and sodium hydroxide ‘caustic soda’. Very occasionally one may even see old bottles of ‘muriatic acid’, the common name before Davy discovered it was a compound of hydrogen and chlorine, and renamed it ‘hydrochloric acid’. It’s easy to see that other older names could have been kept around; sulfur could still be called brimstone, nitric acid might still be aqua fortis, sulfuric acid might be oil of vitriol (the origin of the term as used to mean vicious rhetoric; the name itself means ‘glassy’—as in ‘vitreous’—because crystals of sulfur compounds look like glass). Conversely, some different older names still in use might have been more succesfully displaced. Although names like methanoic acid and ethanoic acid might fit a nice systematic scheme, they lack the historical resonance of the commonplace counterparts like formic acid (referring to it being used by ant stings, ants being formica in Latin) and acetic acid (from acetum, Latin for ‘vinegar’, a dilute solution of acetic acid).
Finally there are the elements towards the bottom of the periodic table that were more recently discovered, and sometimes made for the first time in atom-smashing experiments as they are too unstable to occur in nature. Arguably the first element to usher in this trend was uranium, known today as a nuclear fuel for both peaceful power generation and nuclear weapons. Uranium is naturally occuring but has two forms (isotopes, differing in number of neutrons), one of which decays radioactively far more quickly than the other. Uranium was first isolated in 1789 by Klaproth, who named it after Herschel’s recently discovered planet of Uranus. This was a curiously appropriate name, as uranium would go on to upend the world even more than the the discovery of a new planet unknown to the ancients—but there was no way Klaproth could have known that, as in his own time uranium was largely of interest only as a source of yellow pigment for artists. The element could easily have gotten a far more prosaic name relating to the colour of those pigments or its heavy mass. And, of course, its name would have been different if a different name for Herschel’s planet had caught on (more on this in a future article!) Much later on, in the Second World War, the two elements following uranium were produced and named neptunium and plutonium after the next two planets (as they were then recognised as). Again, these names would have been different by default if the planets’ names were different, and different names altogether might have been chosen. Neptunium was almost called ‘ausonium’ by Fermi after the Greek name for Italy, and plutonium was almost named ‘extremium’ or ‘ultimium’ due to the erroneous belief that it was the last element possible to make. In his TL-191 series, Harry Turtledove has the Confederate States’ nuclear programme instead count backwards through the planets from uranium, meaning neptunium is called saturnium and plutonium is called jovium. He also realistically has different names chosen by different countries’ secret nuclear programmes as they are not in communication with one another.
Finally there are those elements which differ slightly in spelling from one country to the other. IUPAC now wants Sulfur with an F to be the standard everywhere, but most people in the United Kingdom haven’t noticed. More celebrated is Aluminium vs. Aluminum, the result of a long-running argument at the time about which was more logical and Latinate where one side won in the UK and the other in the US. Ironically, the element was originally just named Alumium, which would have saved ink either way. At least in these cases, however, the symbol would be the same regardless.
So, if you have a timeline or story with a POD at the appropriate time, consider alternative names for elements and compounds. In the process, you might learn something interesting, like how cobalt is named after the German legend of goblin-like creatures haunting mines called ‘kobolds’, or vanadium is named after Vanadis (Freya), the Norse goddess of beauty, for its many colourful compounds…