On Etymologies of the Elements

When researching for my post “The Final Frontiers of the Periodic Table” it struck me how dull the names of most of the chemical elements are, “something-something-ium”, a trend of uncreativity that’s worsened with the more recent discoveries of the transuranic and superheavy elements.

Now, most of the periodic table is not very interesting; J.B.S. Haldane is reputed to have quipped that if biology tells us anything about the mind of the Creator it reveals he has “an inordinate fondness for beetles”. A chemist might say “an inordinate fondness for silvery-grey metals”. I’ve always been struck by just how many of those elements there are. Most of the center and left of the whole periodic table is comprised of them.

A simple periodic table of all 118 known elements, courtesy of Offnfopt of Wikipedia. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Of Planets and Elements

Anyway, I’d like to spare a word for the elements discovered after the early 20th century, those that in a timeline diverging from our own after 1900 (like the alternate-history/science-fiction/space opera universe I write in) could easily be different. Rhenium was the final naturally-occurring stable element to be discovered, in 1925. That’s soon enough that in a universe like my own it may well be discovered around the same time and named the same; rhenium was named after the Rhine River.

From a long time after its discovery in 1789, uranium, element 92, was the heaviest known element. Uranium was named after the then-recently-discovered planet Uranus, and the Greek god of the sky, plus the “-ium” suffix commonly associated with chemical elements. Not exactly the height of creativity, but the planet theme was continued with the discovery of neptunium, element 93, in 1940, and plutonium, element 94, also in 1940.

Where it starts to get a bit interesting is that while Neptune was discovered in 1846, long before the 20th century, Pluto was only discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh under the aegis of the Lowell Observatory. Although he didn’t recognize it for what it was (due to its faintness and slow movement), Percival Lowell himself had actually sighted Pluto in 1915, just before his death in 1916. After that, the search for “Planet X” didn’t resume until 1929; the fact it took such a short time to discover Pluto afterwards, as well as the fact it had been sighted (in retrospect) as early as 1909, suggests it could have been discovered considerably earlier, perhaps by Lowell himself in 1915 or 1916 right before he died.

In real life Lowell Observatory took over 1000 suggestions for the name of the new planet, but Pluto, a suggestion by Venetia Burney in conversation with her grandfather Falconer Madan (yes, that’s somebody’s real name; of course he was a former librarian from the University of Oxford (they don’t make Englishmen like they used to…)), prevailed. It was the obvious choice, as Pluto is the Roman ruler of the underworld, the cold dark regions far from where the sun shined, i.e. the outermost solar system. So the next planet after Neptune would likely be named Pluto in such a timeline.

Pluto remained the only planet beyond Neptune to be discovered for a long time; a whole slew of them followed in the 21st century. Quaoar in 2002; Sedna in 2003; Haumea, Salacia, and Orcus in 2004; Makemake and Eris in 2005; and Gonggong in 2007. If you continued with the planet theme then past plutonium there should have been quaoarium, sednium, haumeium, salacium, orcium, makemakium, erisium, and gonggongium (blech). But by the time the next element after plutonium, element 95, was discovered we were fresh out of planetary names.

Would that be the case in a timeline like mine? Who knows? Clyde Tombaugh searched for additional planets but came up empty, and for a long time the search for trans-neptunian objects was abandoned. Only after a 1992 discovery of an additional trans-neptunian object other than Pluto (a small asteroid) did systematic searches begin.

Considering that telescopes similar to the Hubble Space Telescope, which can easily resolve even Sedna, the most distant known planet, to a few pixels, are lofted in my world as early as the 1940s, we’d likely see a world with a profusion of trans-neptunian planetary discoveries in the 1940s and 50s instead of the 2000s. This takes place at roughly the same time nuclear technology to synthesize the transuranic elements is coming into its own, so the planetary theme may well continue. What these new planets will be named in such a universe is up for debate, but they almost certainly wouldn’t be the same names we use for the same objects discovered in the same order. Like some other things in my universe it’s, perhaps surprisingly, a blank page that I can fill in as I please.

How were the Transuranic Elements named, anyway?

So let’s go over the naming process for the transuranic elements in real life instead. The next element after plutonium, element 95, is americium, named by analogy with europium, the element above it in the lanthanide series (element 95 is an actinide). The fact an American laboratory synthesized it first might have something to do with it, but who knows? It’s an elegant analogy, even if it’s an uninspired name at first glance. Australium might be an alternative, considering that Australia is antipodal to Europe.

Element 96 is curium, named after Marie and Pierre Curie, despite the fact they had nothing to do with its discovery. This was justified by analogy to its lanthanide twin gadolinium, which was named after Johan Gadolin, an explorer of the rare-earth elements just as the Curies were explorers of the actinides. Fair enough. It might be named the same thing even in my universe.

Element 97 is berkelium, named after Berkley, California, the place it was discovered, which almost certainly would be different in my universe. This naming was justified by its lanthanide twin terbium being named after Ytterby, Sweden, the place it was first discovered.

Element 98 is californium, named after the state it was discovered in, California, in a departure from analogizing from lanthanide counterparts. Element 98’s counterpart, dysprosium, is named after the Greek term δυσπρόσιτος, meaning “hard to get”, referring to the difficulty of its discovery. Needless to say that has nothing to do with a location. In a timeline like mine the analogizing with the lanthanides might continue, and a different name may be chosen. Or the lanthanide analogizing might not occur at all in the first place. Who knows?

Element 99 is einsteinium, named (as you might guess) after Albert Einstein. I can’t help but think when element 98 and 99 came around the Americans had started to run out of ideas. Hehe. Anyway, I find it odd that a chemical element is named after Einstein, and no offense, but I’m definitely changing this in my world. Its lanthanide counterpart is holmium, named after the city of Stockholm, where it was discovered.

Element 100 is fermium, named after Enrico Fermi, another rather tangential naming choice. Its lanthanide counterpart is erbium, another element named after Ytterby, Sweden.

Element 101 is mendelevium, named after Dmitri Mendeleev (the discoverer of the periodic table itself in the 19th century), an even more tangential choice. Thulium is its lanthanide counterpart, Thule being a classical term for the region encompassing Sweden, where it was first discovered.

Element 102 is nobelium, named after Alfred Nobel (of all people). Its lanthanide counterpart is ytterbium, yet another element named after Ytterby, Sweden, where it was first discovered.

At this point the lanthanide analogizing ends. Element 103 is lawrencium, named after Ernest Lawrence, inventor of the cyclotron. Element 104 is rutherfordium, named after Ernest Rutherford, another figure from much earlier in chemistry. Element 105 is dubnium, named after the city of Dubna, Russia, where it was discovered. Element 106 is seaborgium, named after Glenn Seaborg, a leading figure in the earlier transuranic elements to be synthesized. Element 107 is bohrium, named after Niels Bohr, an important figure in describing atomic structure. Element 108 is named hassium, after Hesse, where it was discovered. Element 109 is meitnerium, after Lise Meitner, an early nuclear physicist. Element 110 is darmstadtium, named after Darmstadt, the place it was discovered.

Element 111 is named roentgenium, after Wilhelm Roentgen, discoverer of X-rays (another figure who had little to do with the actual discovery of a given element). Element 112 is copernicium, named after Copernicus (of all people). Element 113 is nihonium, named after Japan, where it was discovered. Element 114 is named flerovium, after Georgy Flyorov, the founder of the laboratory where it was discovered. Element 115 is moscovium, named after the oblast (Moscow) where the Dubna laboratory that discovered it is located. Element 116 is livermorium, named after Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which collaborated in its discovery. Very uninspired names.

Element 117 is tennessine, which is at least kinda interesting; for once, an element that doesn’t end in “-ium”! The “-ine” ending comes from the fact it’s in group 17, the other members of which are halogens which traditionally take the suffix “-ine”. “Tenness” comes from Tennessee, because a crucial component in synthesizing the element came from Tennessee (Oak Ridge Laboratory, to be precise). Element 118, the heaviest element yet to be synthesized, is oganesson, named after Yuri Oganessian, who played a leading role in its discovery, plus the noble-gas suffix “-on”. These names are a bit less dull, but still not the best.

An Alternate History of the Transuranic Nomenclature

Obviously in an alternate history all these names would be different. Exactly how I’m not sure. There are 26 transuranic elements total that are known today, and probably at least 30 or so total (that’s a lot of names!) until you get into the realm of quark matter, assuming the “continent of stability” theory is true. These nuclei might be called the “transhadronic elements”. “Hadron” itself is a new Greek word only introduced in 1962 to describe the strongly-interacting massive particles like protons and neutrons (which we now know are made up of quarks), but the derivation from ἁδρός, meaning stout or thick, is obvious, and could easily recur in another timeline.

Courtesy of research that (unlike in our timeline) uses nuclear explosions, the isotopes located on the island of stability are discovered rather quickly. One idea I have is to name the superheavy element with the most stable isotopes caelium, after Caelus, the Roman counterpart to the Greek god Uranus, since in my fictional universe it has a comparable half-life to uranium. Perhaps this name is reserved until it’s known which of the superheavies is the most stable.

A more mythological Periodic Table? Ooh…

In general, I might like a world better where the new elements were named much more mythologically and creatively. Imagine if instead of livermorium and copernicium we had names like charonium and persephonium. Indeed, per the naming of plutonium, imagine if the rest of the transuranic elements were all named after mythological characters associated with the underworld? There’s no shortage of nomenclature even without leaving the Greek tradition.

In addition to charonium and persephonium, why not hadeum (after Hades), acheronium (after the river of misery), phlegethium (after the river of fire), lethium (after the river of forgetfulness), tartarum (after Tartarus, a realm often associated with the underworld), hecateum (after Hecate, the queen of darkness), and asphodelium (a field within the underworld)?

This might even be the most plausible development in my timeline. Let’s say there’s a greater interest in classical mythology among the people who name the elements, and after plutonium is discovered, let’s say sometime in the 1930s, they’re fresh out of planets, while the number of new transuranics piles up. A logical development might be not to name by analogy by the lanthanides, but rather to keep going with the Pluto theme, by naming all the subsequent radioactive elements after the Underworld. Considering the alchemical, dangerous, deadly, and forbidden nature of these elements it might even be considered appropriate; consider also that many nuclear scientists had occultist views, and it becomes much more likely than one might think. I think I’ll roll with this in my alternate universe.

Starting with the Pluto theme, element 95 (americium) will be named persephonium, after Persephone, the Greek queen of the underworld. Plutonium is already named after the Roman king of the underworld, so in the interests of equality of the sexes the feminine counterpart might be thought of as appropriate.

Element 96 (curium) might be named hadeum, after the Greek god Hades (i.e. Pluto), the ruler of the underworld. Element 97 (berkelium) might be named melinoeum, after Melinoë, the daughter of Persephone and bringer of nightmares and madness.

Element 98 (californium) might be named charonium, after Charon, the ferryman to the underworld. I deliberately reserved the cooler moniker of charonium for this one, since it has a very low critical mass, and its application for nuclear weaponry has been hyped up, making it a good choice for this moniker.

Element 99 (einsteinium) might be named nyxium, after Nyx, an inhabitant of the underworld and the goddess of the night. Element 100 (fermium) might be named cerberum, after Cerberus, the three-headed dog who prevents souls from leaving the underworld. This might be considered an appropriate name, since it’s the heaviest element that can be prepared by neutron bombardment of lighter elements alone.

Element 101 (mendelevium) might be named hecateum, after Hecate, the Greek goddess of crossroads, entrance-ways, dogs, light, the Moon, magic, witchcraft, knowledge of herbs and poisonous plants, necromancy, and sorcery, so the first element that required new techniques to synthesize in the laboratory might be considered an appropriate namesake for this queen of darkness.

Element 102 (nobelium) might be named thanatum, after the Greek god of death. Element 103 (lawrencium) might be named kereum, after the Keres, feminine death spirits and the sisters of Thanatos.

From here on there might be a race toward the fabled “island of stability”, so rivers of the underworld might serve as inspiration. I’m thinking perhaps element 104 (rutherfordium) is named styxium, after the River Styx; element 105 (dubnium) is named acheronium (after the River Acheron); element 106 (seaborgium) is named phlegethium, after the River Phlegethon; element 107 (bohrium) is named cocytum, after the River Cocytus; element 108 (hassium) is named lethium, after the River Lethe.

Next up might be the judges of the dead. Thus element 109 (meitnerium) is named minosium, after Minos; element 110 (darmstadtium) is named rhadamanthum, after Rhadamanthus; element 111 (roentgenium) is named aeacium, after Aeacus.

element 112 (copernicium) might be named tartarum, after Tartarus, a realm often associated with the underworld; followed by element 113 (nihonium), which might be named asphodelium (the Asphodel Meadows, another underworld location).

element 114 (flerovium) might be named nemeseum, after Nemesis. Next up, rounding out the transactinide series, might be names associated with the Erinyes, the female chthonic deities of vengeance. Thus element 115 (moscovium) might be named Erineum, after the whole group; element 116 (livermorium) might be named megaereum, after Megaera; element 117 (tennessine) might be named alectine, after Alecto (notice the suffix “-ine”, meaning it’s associated with the halogens); and element 118 (oganesson) might be named tisiphonon, after Tisiphone (notice the suffix “-on”, because of its association with the noble gases).

Beyond element 118, we might be approaching the transhadronic realm, so perhaps a fitting end to the hadronic periodic table might be naming some of the last elements after the Fates, who reside in the underworld.

Element 119 might be named atropium, after Atropos; element 120 might be named clothium, after Clothos; element 121 might be named lachesium, after Lachesis; and finally element 122 might be named moireum, after the Moirai, the Fates as a group.


At this point any isotopes with any significant half-life would have atomic masses over 300 and be well within the transhadronic realm, assuming the “continent of stability” theory is true. Perhaps it would be best for the systematic naming of every element to stop at element 122, lest we have to find thousands of names for every one of the millions of variants of quark matter. At least according to this chart from Dubna, moireum might be the end of the line for any nuclide with an atomic mass under 300 or so anyway, perhaps making this a fitting place to end my universe’s periodic table.

Island of stability derived from Zagrebaev, by Lasunncty of Wikipedia. CC-BY-SA 4.0

In my world, beyond an atomic mass of 300 or so, the even-more-fascinating transhadronic realm with its quark matter and preon matter awaits. What’s your world like? How would you name all these elements? I can’t help but wonder. At least today I penciled all this in for my world, and my goodness, does it inspire me to delve in even further! Maybe like in “Night of the Calendars” I can work all this into an expositional story someday…

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