UCSB Science Line
Sponge Spicules Nerve Cells Galaxy Abalone Shell Nickel Succinate X-ray Lens Lupine
UCSB Science Line
How it Works
Ask a Question
Search Topics
Our Scientists
Science Links
Contact Information
Why the symbols and the name of some of the elements are different?
Question Date: 2017-03-09
Answer 1:

The elements are named based on the number of protons and neutrons inside each atom (the number of electrons inside is the same as protons). Those have the same protons are the same elements. With the same number of protons, the number of neutrons could be different. That's why we have isotopes. Those isotopes could have different properties. It is why we have to give them different names and symbols in order to avoid confusion between them.


Answer 2:

The names and symbols of some elements are from different languages. Sodium is Na, from the Latin word 'natrium,' which is actually the word for sodium bicarbonate, according to the internet.

Tungsten is 'W' for 'wolfram,' from German words 'wolf' and 'rham,' which means 'wolf cream'! Check out Wikipedia for more details of this interesting name: names on elements.

Gold's symbol, Au, comes from the Latin word 'arum'. I'm guessing our word 'aura' comes from the same Latin word.

Answer 3:

You mean like "why is Iron Fe and not Ir?" and the like? It's usually due to languages - Iron is ferrum in Latin, for example. I don't know what the latin words for mercury and lead are (Spanish for lead is plomo, which I'm sure is similar to the Latin). In the case of Ir, Ir is iridium, which is its own element.

Answer 4:

I also recommend you to read the Wikipedia names on elements , it has interesting information for your question.

Chemical elements are also named after people. Other elements are named after places on the planet earth; few elements are named after astronomical places, for example, helium is named after the Greek word for the sun Helios.

The element curium is named after Marie Curie and Pierre Curie, both scientists won the Physics Nobel Award in 1903. The element californium was first made in 1950 at the University of California Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley. Californium has the symbol Cf and its name is because it was made here in California.

I recommend you to read the book Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie (Great Discoveries) by Barbara Goldsmith, you will enjoy very much reading about the life and scientific work of the couple Curie.

Answer 5:

Some of the elements are called by an English name, but their symbols are based on their Latin name. One example is lead which is abbreviated Pb which stands for “plumbum” which is the source of the word plumbing. Others are sodium (Na – natrium), potassium (K - kalium), gold (Au – aurum), silver (Ag – argentum), tungsten (W – wolfram), iron (Fe – ferrum), antimony (Sb – stibium), tin (Sn – stannum), and mercury (Hg – hydrargyrum). Since elements have been discovered in many nations across many time periods, there were sometimes multiple conflicting names. In addition, many things in science are named in Latin because that was considered the language that highly learned people would use. Therefore, some elements have multiple names and in some situations, the formal name and the name used for the abbreviation are different.

Answer 6:

I think this is a really interesting question because the current method of abbreviating elements doesn’t seem to make sense at all. Shouldn’t all the symbols reflect the element’s name? It is important to remember that not all elements were discovered by scientists in the English speaking world. The symbol sometimes reflects the name of the element in a different language. For example: W is the symbol for tungsten which was discovered by a German scientist. In German, they call the element ‘wolfram’ so thus the symbol is W.

Modern scientists also drew upon the work of many classical texts in order to rediscover the elements, and because of this, the element’s symbol is a reference to the classical name. Hg is the symbol for mercury which was called hydragyrum in Latin. Fun fact, hydragyrum means “water silver” which pretty accurately describes what mercury looks like. You may be wondering now, why do we bother keeping these old names? Wouldn’t it be much simpler to let each language have their own naming convention for the elements? It may seem easier in the short term but since science comes from collaboration the most basic “language” should be something that can be understood by everyone. For this reason, the element symbols are consistently named regardless of language. Thank you for your question!

Answer 7:

The different chemical elements all have different names because, well, they’re all different! They have different weights, sizes, different numbers of protons and electrons and neutrons, and they have different properties! Some are gases, some are metals, some are in between! The symbols are just used so we don’t have to write our their full names, kind of like a chemical nickname. Without all of the different elements in the periodic table, we wouldn’t be living in such a diverse world.

Click Here to return to the search form.

University of California, Santa Barbara Materials Research Laboratory National Science Foundation
This program is co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation and UCSB School-University Partnerships
Copyright © 2020 The Regents of the University of California,
All Rights Reserved.
UCSB Terms of Use