Naming the Elements

Some while back a question came up to which no one seemed to have an answer: why is the Devil sometimes called “Old Nick?”  It was during the Christmas season and since practically everything seemed (for advertising purposes, at any rate) to be related to either “Santa” or “St. Nick,” one just had to wonder if our benevolent St. Nicholas was somehow connected to the dark side.  Was he, perhaps, a nice Christian replacement for some older, grimmer figure?

Unfortunately, at the time no one had even the vaguest idea where “Old Nick” came from and where on earth the Devil had acquired such a whimsical pseudonym.  Some quick searching was equally unhelpful.  Recently, while researching a completely different subject, I came upon some folklore that ties things together rather neatly.

It seem that there used to be a kind of folk demon in Southern Germany and Austria that liked to live in the mines and was called a nickel.   As a group, the nickelen were pictured as goat-footed and goat-horned.  Today, at least one of their number has survived to take on a benign role (see below).  In days of old, however, these demons, also known as Alten Nickelen (“Old Nicks”), had a very different role and a different set of bad habits.

Among these was prowling around the dark passages of mines and inventing nasty tricks to torment the poor, hardworking miners.  One way they would do this was to salt the mines with a mineral that looked exactly like copper ore, but wasn’t.  If you were fooled into mining it and then tried to smelt copper from it, all you got for your labors was a lode of frustration.  The miners called this useless stuff kupfernickel, or “Nick’s Copper.”

Time changes things.  Since the popular image of Old Nick as a goaty demon was a dead ringer for the Christian image of Satan, after the Christian invasion they apparently merged and pretty soon the “Old Nicks” became just “Old Nick,” and another name for the Devil.

Krampus had another fate.  I’m not positive about whether or not they were a class separate from nickelen, but apparently there was a group of demons known as krampen (the “clawed ones”) who looked an awful lot like nickelen.  That is, they were goat-horned, cloven-footed, etc.  The avatar of this class was called Krampus.  Krampus has survived into the present day as a goblinesque figure who accompanies St. Nick as a sort of assistant.  He looks surprisingly familiar to us, carrying a full bag thrown over his shoulder.  Only in his case, he is not carrying toys for Father Christmas to distribute.  Instead, Krampus carries a bag full of lumps of coal to give to bad children and switches to beat them with.  So on the eve of St Nick’s feast day, December 6th, called Krampusnacht, South Germans celebrate by dressing up in Krampus costumes and trying to frighten young children.

And it turned out that kupfernickel, the much despised mineral, was eventually persuaded to yield quite another metal.  In honor of its origin, they named it Nickel, which I suppose you could say means “The Devil’s Metal”.

I must say I found all this to be pretty entertaining, as I had no idea that the metal had such a romantic history.  This got me curious, so I started looking into exactly how other chemical elements got their names.  Brace yourself, ‘cause I found a real mother lode of pure trivia.

There are a number of common themes in the naming of the elements.  For instance, lots of elements (Einsteinium, Curium, Fermium, etc.) are named for famous scientists.  This makes them easy to remember and has the virtue of being the same in all languages, but it’s a bit dull.  Still others are named for countries (Germanium, Francium, Polonium, etc.), which I find equally dull. [Although I did uncover one genuine curiosity: why on earth are so many elements (Erbium, Terbium, Ytterbium, and Yttrium) derived from a fairly obscure Swedish village called Ytterby?]

There is, of course, another whole set that derives from mythology: Neptunium, Niobium (from Niobe, the daughter of Tantalus), Palladium (from Pallas Athena), Plutonium, Promethium, Selenium, Tellurium (Tellus, goddess of the earth), Thorium, Titanium, Uranium, and Vanadium (from the Scandinavian goddess of love and beauty, Freya Vanadis).

Great for the classicists among us, I suppose, but hardly exciting.  Still, there are other groups I find much more interesting.

A favorite set reflects the joys of being a scientist and the wonderful experiences that lie in chemical laboratories: Osmium, for instance, comes from the Greek word osme, for “smell,” which gives a pretty broad clue.  I suspect someone had even worse experiences with Bromine.  It comes from the Greek bromos, “a stench or bad odor.”

Then, too, there is probably a world of frustration wrapped up in the choices of Krypton (kryptos or “hidden”), Lanthanum (lanthanein or “to escape notice”), Dysprosium (dysprositos or “hard to get at”).  I suspect a particularly tormenting experience must have led to the selection of Tantalum, after the mythological character in Hades who was up to his chin in water which receded whenever he tried to drink it.  That poor soul is also the source of our word “tantalize.”

Of course, scientists are not the most romantic of people, so lots of choices are merely descriptive of the material or its compounds: Arsenic from arsenikon meaning “yellowish,” Beryllium from the pale green color of a beryl, Bismuth (a bit distantly) from the German weisse masse, “a white mass,” Boron from the Arabic buraq, “white,” Chlorine from chloros, “yellowish green,” Chromium from chroma, “colored,” referring to its many colored compounds, Rhodium from rhodon, “rose colored,” Zinc (perhaps) from the German Zinke meaning “sharp,” for its spiky crystalline form, Zirconium from the Arabic zargun meaning “gold-like.”

And if you think that’s bad, another whole set comes, even less romantically, from the laboratory equipment: Cesium from the Latin caesius, for its “sky blue” spectral lines, Helium from helios, the “sun,” because its spectral lines were first seen in the sun’s chromosphere during an eclipse, Indium from indigo, for the element’s “blue” spark spectrum, Iodine from iodes, referring to its “violet” vapors, Rubidium from the Latin rubidus, for its “ruby” spectral lines, Thallium from thallos, “green twig,” and refers, yet again, to its spectral lines.

Beyond their lack of romance, some of our ancestral scientists clearly lacked imagination as well: Barium comes from barys, a Greek word meaning “heavy”; Neon comes from neos, meaning “new”; Lithium comes from lithos, meaning “stone”; Tungsten comes (in a fit of creativity) from the Swedish tung sten, meaning “heavy stone.”

I promise that is the end of the “dry but educational” part.  For me, the rest is just candy.

For instance, did you know that the inert gas Argon is called that because argos means “lazy?”

That Iridium is named for Iris, the goddess of the rainbow?  Anyone who has ever seen iridium salts will know why.

That Cobalt comes from the German kobold, meaning (yet another) “goblin of the mines?”

That the chemical symbol for Mercury, Hg, comes from its Greek name hydrargyrum, meaning “watery silver?”

That Lavoisier, who kept on finding Oxygen in association with his acids, named it for oxy + genos, meaning “acid maker?”

That Lavoisier also (and more correctly) named Hydrogen from hydro + genos, meaning “water maker” after he discovered that burning hydrogen yielded water?

But my personal favorite is Gallium, discovered by a Frenchman named Le Coq.  While it is usually taken as deriving patriotically from the Latin gallia for “France,” it is hardly accidental that it could equally well be taken as coming from another Latin word, gallus, meaning a “rooster or cock.”

I found it.  I named it after myself.  I’m French.  Got a problem with that?

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