Periodic Table of Etymology

Common perception of the periodic table is that everybody in the world who has seen one is overwhelmed by it.
I don’t know if that’s true or not. I never really paid attention to it until I became a Chemistry major.
I can sympathize with anyone who sees the table with fear in their face. The 100+ little squares would make sense if it were not for the decimal points and fancy single words on it.

In fact, the one thing that stands out most to me about the periodic table is the names of the elements. The first game every chemistry enthusiast plays is trying to use the atomic symbols as Scrabble pieces to make fun words and names. Yet, much to my dismay, I can’t really spell my name (even though it is so short) because there’s no “J” in that table yet.

Why not?
Obviously, atomic symbols don’t really follow any sort of agreement with the element they represent (I’m looking at you tungsten and antimony). And even so, with only 26 letters in the alphabet, you would think that a “J” would sneak its way into one of the 100+ symbols.

But no beans.
So that gets me wondering about where element names can trace their roots, and hopefully come to peace about why there isn’t a single J in the (Earth) table as of 2011.

So as part of my curiosity, I decided to make a Table of Etymology. If anything, it will help me memorize the periodic table better! I hope that maybe someday I can turn this into a pretty graphic. But for now, I present the text version of

the Periodic Table of Etymology

Starting with element #1:

Hydrogen: at one point in history, people didn’t believe in elements. But later in the 18th century, Henry Cavendish recognized that hydrogen gas was a substance, and that it produced water when burned. That shouldn’t be surprising by today’s knowledge – think of a combustion reaction, which is an exothermic (gives off heat) reaction between a fuel and oxygen. In the case of hydrogen gas as a fuel, the reaction proceeds as follows:

2 H2 + O2 → 2 H2O(g) + heat

If you cool the product enough, it becomes liquid water. This gives hydrogen its name, based on Greek roots: hydrogen, or water generator.

Stay tuned for element #2: Helium!


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