Most people could name many of the elements, but how many of us know how they got those names?
Each of the 115 known
chemical elements was discovered over the last few thousand years, from
before recorded history began to the nuclear laboratories of the 21st
Their chosen names were influenced by an ever changing mix of language, culture and our understanding of chemistry.
So how did they get these names? And why do they end in -ium?
Several elements' names have Anglo-Saxon language origins, including gold, iron, copper and silver.
These metals were known long before they got these names,
however. Gold can be found in its pure form in nature and although iron
is usually found in ores which require smelting, the earliest known iron
artefacts, from 3500 BCE, derive from purer metal from meteorites.
The Latin names of these elements are commemorated in their atomic symbols, Au (aurum) for gold and Fe (ferrum) for iron.
The Romans began the practise of element names ending in "-um," with Victorian scientists continuing the trend.
Element of uncertainty
Since 1947, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC)
has had the responsibility for approving elements' names, and deciding
the single internationally recognised symbol for each element.
Before this, there were multiple historical occasions of
elements being given several names, usually due to simultaneous
discovery or uncertainty over a discovery.
The name of element 41 was not agreed for 150 years. It was
called columbium in America and niobium in Europe until IUPAC finally
decided the official name would be niobium in 1949.
Dr Fabienne Meyers, Associate Director of IUPAC, explains the current naming process: To start with, "the discoverers are invited to propose a name and a symbol."
"For linguistic consistency, the recommended practice is that all new elements should end in '-ium'," she adds.
"Since the sake of naming an element is essentially to avoid confusion,
it is important to ensure that the proposed name is unique and has not
been used earlier even unofficially or temporarily for a different
"After examination and acceptance by the division - which includes a
public review period of five months - the name and symbol are then
submitted to the IUPAC Council for approval."
The name is then published in the scientific journal Pure and Applied Chemistry.
Actinium to zirconium
A common source of names both now and historically, over a
quarter of the elements are named after a place, often where they were
discovered or synthesised.
These places range in size from continents (europium) and
countries (americium, francium, polonium) to the the Scottish village
Because of the great wealth of discoveries made there, four
elements are named after the Swedish mining village, Ytterby (ytterbium,
yttrium, erbium and terbium).
There is just one element that wasn't first discovered on
Earth, and it too is named after its place of the discovery - helium,
from the Greek word for Sun, helios.
Myth and legend
About a dozen elements take their name directly from legends, including titanium, arsenic and tantalum.
Nickel and cobalt are named after 'devil' and 'kobold', from
the Germanic folk belief that malign creatures snuck into mines to
replace valuable and similar-looking copper and silver ores with these
less valuable ones.
In 1949 the artificial element Promethium was named after
Prometheus, the man in Greek legend punished with eternal torture for
stealing fire from the gods, as a reference to the great difficulty and
sacrifice needed to synthesise new elements.
Modestly, no discoverer has ever named an element after him or
herself, but several scientists have been honoured by having elements
named after them. These include curium, einsteinium and fermium.
Seaborgium, named after American chemist Glenn Seaborg, was the first element to be named after a living scientist.
There is also mendelevium, named after Dmitri Mendeleev,
the Russian scientist who established the first periodic table in 1869,
and fitted the known elements into their places in the table based on