Which Elements are Named After Countries?

This week, names of four newly discovered chemical elements have been announced:

  • Nihonium (Nh) for element 113
  • Moscovium (Mc) for element 115
  • Tennessine (Ts) for element 117
  • Oganesson (Og) for element 118

These names are up for being revised in six months. Barring some unexpected development, these names will go down in the chemistry books – and more to the point, nuclear physics book – as the names of the elements that complete Period 7 of the periodic table.

Of these four, one name refers to a country (Japan), one to a region (Tennessee), one to a city (Moscow), and one to a person (Yuri Oganessian). All four names were chosen by the discoverers, and honour the discoverers. While the discovering teams have indeed produced a tremendous work and certainly deserve the honour, I find that type of naming quite unfortunate, and even downright selfish.

This has not always been the case. Most elements were not named for selfish reasons. Some elements were named for their properties, such as hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. Some for materials from which they were extracted: beryllium from beryl, aluminium from alum, calcium from calx, sodium from soda, potassium from potash, boron from borax, silicon from silex, and lithium from stones.  Many were named for the colours of their compounds: chlorine is green, bismuth is white, rubidium is red, caesium is blue-grey, gold is yellow, indium is indigo, iodine is violet, rhodium is pink, thallium is green, chromium is colourful, and iridium has the colour of the rainbow. I find these highly poetical. Not to be outdone, some elements were named after astronomical objects: uranium, neptunium, and plutonium for Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto; cerium after Ceres; selenium after the Moon; and tellurium after the Earth.

In more modern times, many radioactive elements were named for their radioactivity: actinium and radium produce rays, astatine is unstable, technetium is artificial. Others were named for various other properties: bromine and osmium smell, argon is inactive, barium is heavy, neon is new, xenon is foreign, phosphorus carries light, krypton and lanthanum are hidden, and dysprosium is hard to get.

Newer elements however, are not named for their properties, but are simply given a name meant to honour the discoverers.  All non-black cells on the follow periodic table are elements whose names can be traced back to a country:


Periodic table of elements by country referred to in the element name.

The last row, Period 7, is almost completely coloured.

I have made some simplifications in the table:  I count Rutherford as British (by his career), and the Rhine as German. Also, the Curies are Polish here.

Let’s look at the country-based names:  Some are quite innocent, like magnesium and manganese, named indirectly after a Greek region called Magnesia. Copper gets its name from the Island of Cyprus, while Beryllium and Strontium get their names indirectly from places in India and Scotland.

In other cases, chemists have tried to honour their country, such as France (gallium and francium), Germany (germanium), and Russia (ruthenium). Note how nicely gallium and germanium are placed side by side. Also note that while europium is named for a deity, the nearby americium was named consciously after the United States.

The Scandinavian countries have the largest share of elements named after them. Famously, a whopping four elements are named after the tiny Swedish village of Ytterby: ytterbium, yttrium, erbium, and terbium. Scandium is named for Scandinavia, thulium for a mythical Scandinavian region.  Holmium and hafnium are named for Stockholm and Copenhagen, respectively. Nobelium and Bohrium and named after a Norvegian and a Danish person, respectively.

Since World War II, newly discovered elements are named simply after people, or after the countries or regions of discovery. In fact, there has been a dispute between American and Soviet physicists about naming priorities. As a result, we don’t have an element named kurchatovium, even if I learned about it in school. With the four new names, that particular dispute should be considered as settled at a score of 7–7, although I’m sure some people on either side of the debate still hope for more.

While names such as einsteinium, fermium, copernicium, and meitnerium  seem fair, given that the persons were already dead and unrelated to the particular discoveries, it seems to me quite preposterous to give names after living people who are involved in the research.  This was the case for seaborgium and the newly named (and not yet finalised) oganesson. Will all respect for these researchers, I doubt that Glenn T. Seaborg and Yuri Oganessian will go down in history in the same way as Copernicus and Mendeleev. Or Einstein and Meitner. Or Curie and Rutherford.

Also, it seems that the responsable discoverers are not trying anymore to follow latin nomenclature:  “nihonium” deserves to be called japonium. That would also give the much more memorable symbol Jp, coinciding with Japan’s country code. If I were responsible for bettering Japan’s standing in the world, I would lobby for “Jp”. On the other hand, Moscovium sounds very appropriate to me, and I like that tennessine and oganesson use the relevant suffixes for halides and noble gases, even if I doubt their corresponding chemistry is going to be characterised anytime soon.

It seems that the last element named after a concept was plutonium. After the last planet to be discovered at the time, and also after a god. The current research teams would do well to come back to naming new elements after actual properties of the material or at least to find metaphors relating to planets and deities, and not just as a vehicle for advertising their labs and principle investigators. Let’s hope that if elements in Group 8 can be synthesized, we will go back to a more classical naming culture.


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