Element, O, P? The elements of “element”

Last post, I discussed how the four, newly confirmed elements are named. But what about the very word element? How did it get its name? Its etymology may not be so, er, elementary.

Building blocks and ABCs? It’s elementary. “Element.” Doodle by me.

The development of element

In English, the earliest record of element names the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire, which ancient and medieval philosophers believed made up the whole of the physical universe. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds record of such usages as early as the 1300s.

The OED also finds, I should note, some early evidence of element that might refer to celestial bodies, suggesting that the word may have had multiple meanings even in its cradle.

We now know, of course, that the universe is composed of so much more than earth, air, water, and fire – and in a completely different manner. Though, if you stop to think about it, humans have discovered 118 elements, 24 of which are synthetic. That’s really not a whole lot of stuff making up the universe as we know it. And most of it actually just hydrogen.

Anyways, we might well say the the discovery of those four new elements – ununtrium, ununpentium, ununseptium, and ununoctium – owes a lot to those old theories, if we take the long view. And the four classical elements show their influence not only on the development of modern chemistry but also on Modern English, seen in the expressions in or out of (one’s) elements. See, each of the four elements was considered to be the natural realm for respective living beings. Think: birds in the air, fish in the sea. This usage, as the OED documents, dates back to the end of the 16th century.

Now, the OED first credits the modern chemical usage of element to Cornish scientist Humphry Davy (who also gets credit for the metallic suffix -ium, as we saw last post) in his lectures, Elements of Agricultural Chemistry, compiled in 1813. According to an 1815 edition of the work, Davy states:

By methods of analysis dependent on chemical and electrical instruments discovered in late times, it has been ascertained that all the varieties of material substances may be resolved into a comparatively small number of bodies, which, as they are not capable of being decompounded, are considered in the present state of chemical knowledge as elements. The bodies incapable of decomposition at present known are forty-seven.

I love that Davy’s lectures are called Elements of Agricultural Chemistry. And he even opens his lectures by observing that the “doctrines” of agricultural chemistry “have not yet been collected into any elementary treatises.” These examples aptly show that element and its derivative forms had already long been enjoying many senses outside of material contexts.

The ABCs of element 

OK, so what do we know about the etymological elements of element? The English word passes into English from the French element, which developed from Latin’s elementumLike English’s own element, this word could refer to a lot of things, including the notion of a “first principle.” As the OED describes it, Latin’s elementum is a “word of which the etymology and primary meaning are uncertain…”

This uncertainty has lead to a number of curious hypotheses. While noting its ultimately obscure origin, Eric Partridge wonders if elementum may have developed from *eligmentum, formed on “ēligere, to choose (the fundamental substance or basic principle) from (a welter of physical phenomenon).”

Meanwhile, Earnest Klein, also noting the obscure origin, suggests one proposal, *elepantum, is “most probable.” This *elepantum, so it’s argued, meant “ivory letter,” loaned from the Greek ἐλέϕας – “elephant” or “ivory,” and source of elephant – but altered by some Etruscan influence.

Ivory letters? Surely Klein means letters carved into (or possibly from?) ivory. The ivory component of this argument may be lacking tusks, but the letter part is important.

For Latin’s elementum could also refer to that building block of reading and writing: a “letter,” as in a letter of the alphabet. English features the metaphor, too. We don’t just learn our ABCs in elementary school. We also learn the ABCs of computer programming or basketball, say.

Scholars are also certain that Latin’s elementum is actually a translation of the Greek στοιχεῖον (stokheion), a word with equally many meanings.

For this word, I consulted Liddell and Scott’s Greek dictionary, and they gloss it as “one of row,” referring to, in the singular, “the shadow of the gnomon (of a sundial)” as well as “a letter.” In the plural, the word referred to the classical “elements” (a usage to attributed Plato) as well “rudiments” in the more general sense. At root is στοῖχος (stoikhos), a “row” or “rank,” source of English’s stoichiometry, speaking of chemistry.

But why the form elementum for that Greek  stokheionCarefully sound out the first three syllables of the word. Does it sound like letters lm, and n?  Was elementum a way of referring to the Roman alphabet via its second half, viz. alphabet (from Greek, referring to its first two letters, alpha and beta) or abecedarium (from post-classical Latin, joining a later Roman alphabet’s first three)?

But, then again, why the second half? Seems a bit fanciful, no?

Well, esteemed etymologist Anatoly Liberman thinks there may just be something to this, including the fancy. Through a series of sound changes beyond our element here, Liberman makes the case that elementum is an alteration of alimenta, “food” or “sustenance,” with each letter in the alphabetic sequence “nourishing” the next. (For  alimenta, think English’s alimentary). The resulting elementum additionally punned on lm, and n. And all as a sort of act of fancy on the part of some scholar. As Liberman puts it:

To put it differently, elementum was not derived from an identifiable root with the help of a suffix but coined whole to gloss Greek stoikheon…Some grammarian must have taken alimenta ~ *olimenta and changed it into elementa (the singular elementum postdates the plural).

This means Latin was first using elementa to refer to “letters,” later figuring other “rudiments” or “first principles” with the term  and then back-forming the singular, elementum.

Further efforts have attempted to link elementum to Semitic roots, including the ancient Canaanite alphabet, but these theories are certainly not easy as ABC.

Whether or not element ultimately imitates the recitation of any letters is up for debate, but one thing is for sure: its Latin and Greek references to the ABCs proves element is pretty elementary, in a manner of speaking, after all.

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Easy as un-bi-tri? Naming new elements

Recently, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) added four new elements to the periodic table. They are temporarily known as ununtriumununpentiumununseptium, and ununoctium.

That’s a daunting lot of u’s, but the nomenclature behind them is actually pretty, um, elementary – which is about the only thing that seems simple when it comes to the business of chemistry, if you ask me.

Actually, even the naming can get pretty complicated, if you dig deep enough, but here’s a basic breakdown, with a little etymology mixed in.

The whys of all the u‘s 


Image from IUPAC.

Before receiving permanent names, new elements take on provisional ones, called “systematic names,” according to the IUPAC’s official guidelines.

These systematic names are based on the elements’ atomic numbers and derived from Latin and Greek roots for numerals.

Let’s take ununtrium. This is element 113, as the element has 113 protons. Ununtrium literally and sequentially links Latin roots for digits 1, 1, and 3. (As opposed to the Latin for one hundred and thirteen, which I believe is centum et tredecim, but don’t necessarily count on that).

And just to be clear, the Latin root for one is un-, from ūnus. For three we have tri-, formed on trēs.

Then, we tack on the suffix ium, used to name metallic elements. Indeed, these elements, completing the periodic table’s seventh row, are some truly superheavy, if incredibly short-lived, metals synthesized in the laboratory.

Now, the Latin words for many elements – like gold, or aurum, and iron, ferrum – end in –um. The Oxford English Dictionary observes that Cornish scientist Humphry Davy, who discovered a number of metals such as potassium and sodium, helped propel the -ium suffix back in 1807. Based on the compounds Davy was electrolyzing, potassium is formed on potash and sodiumsoda. And so from these –ium largely prevailed ever since.

Ununpentium follows the pattern but uses the Greek root for fivepent-, apparently to avoid confusion between Latin’s quad(for digit 4) and quint– (for digit 5).  Ununseptium and ununoctium continue with the Latin roots for seven (sept-) and eight (oct-).

And the temporary chemical symbols of the new elements– Uut, Uup, Uus, and Uu0 – simply abbreviate the initial letter of their component numerical roots. Easy as un-, bi-, tri-, right?

All this once made element 111, now officially roentgenium, quite the u-ful: unununium, with chemical symbol Uuu.

Name game, round 2

Next, the new elements’ discoverers will submit recommendations for permanent names to the IUPAC, which reviews them for suitability, especially for use across languages. According to the IUPAC’s guidelines, the new names must be based on a mythological concept or character, a mineral or similar substance, a place or geographical region, a property the element displays, or a scientist.

If recent discoveries are any measure, the new names will likely honor the laboratories or nationalities of the scientists. So, the Japanese scientists who synthesized ununtrium may submit japonium for the official name.

You can read the IUPAC’s official recommendations for naming new elements here. For more on the history of the IUPAC’s recommendations, I recommend this piece by Quartz. I also enjoyed the BBC’s take on how elements get their names. And for some more general information on the elements, head over to NPR.

Next post, we’ll look into the origin of the very word element, which turns out to be far from basic.

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