Chemical Elements (2)

I personally find that the controversies of columbium (Cb) / niobium (Nb) and tungsten / wolfram and related stories are pretty interesting. Here is a “short” version of what happened based on Wikipedia:

In 1802, tantalum (Ta) was discovered by the Swedish chemist Anders Ekeberg. The name comes from Tantalus, a Greek mythological figure. Tantalus is most famous for his eternal punishment in Tartarus. He was made to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches, with the fruit ever eluding his grasp, and the water always receding before he could take a drink. This is the origin of the English verb tantalize. Ekeberg wrote “This metal I call tantalum … partly in allusion to its incapacity, when immersed in acid, to absorb any and be saturated.”

In 1801, columbium (Cb) was discovered by the English chemist Charles Hatchett from a mineral sample that had been sent to England from Massachusetts, United States. The new element was named as columbium after Columbia, the poetical name for the United States.

However, due to similar properties of Cb and Ta, some people thought that Cb is identical to Ta. In 1846, the German chemist Heinrich Rose argued that there were two different elements in the tantalite (tantalum oxide) sample, and named them after children of Tantalus: niobium (from Niobe), and pelopium (from Pelops). This confusion arose from the minimal observed differences between tantalum and niobium. The claimed new elements pelopium, ilmenium and dianium were in fact identical to niobium or mixtures of niobium and tantalum.

Cb was used in America, while Nb was used in Europe. In 1949, IUPAC chose niobium (Nb) as the official name of this element. The compromise was that IUPAC accepted tungsten instead of wolfram, in deference to North American usage, for element 74.

The name “tungsten” (from the Swedish tungsten, “heavy stone”) is used in English, French, and many other languages as the name of the element, but not in the Nordic countries. The other name “wolfram” (or “volfram”), is used in most European (especially Germanic and Slavic) languages, and is derived from the mineral wolframite, which is the origin of its chemical symbol, W. (Compromise again. Today if you say Wolfram, most people would think about Wolfram Alpha, I guess.)

See also: Element Symbols Not in Use
Po instead of K for Potassium, So instead of Na for Sodium, Tu/Tn instead of W for Tungsten seem so straightforward! Nitrogen used to be called Azote? No wonder RN2+ is called diazonium!

From the Element Symbols List I found that some other elements also have a mismatch between the symbol and the English name, just like W for tungsten. Most of them are known from the ancient times.

1. Ag Silver
Ag is from Latin name Argentum.

2. Au Gold
Au is from Latin Aurum, which means “shining dawn”.

3. Cu Copper
Cu is from Latin Cuprum, which means Cyprus.

4. Fe Iron
Fe is from Latin ferrum, meaning “iron”.

5. Hg Mercury
Named after Mercury, the god of speed and messenger of the Gods, as was the “planet Mercury” named after the god. The symbol Hg is from Greek name, ὕδωρ and ἀργυρός (hydor and argyros), which became Latin, Hydrargyrum; both mean “water-silver”, because it is a liquid like water (at room temperature), and has silvery metallic sheen.

6. K Potassium
K is from Latin name, Kalium.

7. Na Sodium
From the English, “soda”, used in names for Sodium compounds such as caustic soda, soda ash, and baking soda. The symbol Na is from Modern Latin noun natrium.

8. Pb Lead
Pb is from Latin name, Plumbum, hence the English, “plumbing”.

9. Sb Antimony
Sb is from Latin name Stibium.

10. Sn Tin
Sn is from its Latin name Stannum.

11. W Tungsten
See above.

Reference: List of chemical element name etymologies


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