The Meanings Behind 20 Chemical Element Names

On December 30, 2015, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry announced the discovery of four new chemical elements—numbers 113, 115, 117, and 118—the first new elements added to the periodic table since 2011. For the time being, they have the fairly clunky Latin and Greek numerical names ununtium (Uut), ununpentium (Uup), ununseptium (Uus), and ununoctium (Uuo), but, by IUPAC rules, their discovers now get the chance to officially name them.

Online, there’s growing support to name one of these new “heavy metal” elements lemmium in honor of Motörhead frontman Lemmy (who died two days before they were announced), and another octarine after the fictional “color of magic” in the late Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels (Pratchett died in March 2015). Whether these two petitions will come to fruition remains to be seen—the final names are not likely to be announced until later in the spring—but as IUPAC rules demand all new elements be named after either a mythological concept or character, a mineral, a place, a property of the element itself, or a scientist [PDF], it seems unlikely we’ll be seeing lemmium on the walls of chemistry classes any time soon. The stories behind 20 other chemical element names are explained here. 

1. LITHIUM (3)

Despite being the least dense metal, lithium takes its name from the Greek word for “stone,” lithos, because it was discovered in a rock (as opposed to the other alkali metals potassium and sodium, which were discovered in plants and animals). 

2. CARBON (6)

The name carbon comes from the Latin word carbo, meaning “coal” or “charcoal.” A small carbo, incidentally, was a carbunculus, which is the origin of carbuncle

3. NEON (10)

Neon takes its name from neos, the Greek word for “new” (it was “newly” discovered in 1898).


Phosphorus literally means “light-bearer” or “light-bringing,” as the first compound of the element glowed in the dark. A century before it became the name of element 15 in the late 1600s, Phosphorus was an alternative name for the planet Venus, whose appearance in the sky was once believed to strengthen the light and heat of the Sun.

5. VANADIUM (23)

One of the transition metals, pure vanadium is a harsh steel-grey color, but four of its oxidation states produce a rainbow of solutions, colored purple, green, blue, and yellow. Because he was so impressed with how beautiful and varied these solutions were, the Swedish chemist Nils Sefström chose to name vanadium after Vanadís, an alternate name for the Norse goddess of beauty, Freya. Vanadium’s next door neighbor, chromium (24), also produces a variety of colored compounds and so takes its name from the Greek word for “color,” chroma

6. COBALT (27)

Cobalt is often naturally found alongside or in minerals combined with arsenic, and when smelted, cobalt ore can emit noxious arsenic-laden fumes. Long before the poisonous qualities of minerals like these could be explained by science, copper miners in central Europe had no better explanation than to presume these toxic effects were supernatural, and were caused by devious underground goblins called kobolds who lived inside the rock—and it's from the German word kobold that cobalt gets its name. 

7. COPPER (29)

The chemical symbol for copper is Cu, which derives from the metal’s Latin name, cuprum. In turn, cuprum is descended from Kyprios, the Ancient Greek name for the island of Cyprus, which was well known in antiquity for its production of copper. Some other chemical elements named after places include germanium (32), americium (95), berkelium (97), californium (98), and darmstadtium (110), while the elements ruthenium (44), holmium (67), lutetium (71), hafnium (72), and polonium (84) take their names from the Latin names for Russia (Ruthenia), Stockholm (Holmia), Paris (Lutetia), Copenhagen (Hafnia), and Poland (Polonia).

8. GALLIUM (31)

A brittle, silvery-colored metal with a melting point just above room temperature, at 85ºF—meaning that a solid block would quite easily melt in your handgallium was discovered in 1875 by the French chemist Paul-Émile Lecoq de Boisbaudran. He chose to name it after Gaul, the Latin name for France, but soon after his discovery was announced, de Boisbaudran was forced to deny allegations that he had actually intended the name gallium to be a self-referencing pun on his own name: Lecoq means “the rooster” in French, while the Latin word for “rooster” is gallus. Despite explicitly writing in a paper in 1877 that France was the true namesake, the rumor dogged de Boisbaudran his whole life and has endured to today. 

9. BROMINE (35)

One of just two elements that are liquid at room temperature (the second being mercury), bromine usually appears as a rich, dark red-brown liquid, similar to blood, that emits fumes and has a characteristically harsh smell. Ultimately, it takes its name from a Greek word, bromos, meaning “stench.”

10. KRYPTON (36)

Because it is colorless, odorless, and so difficult to discover, krypton takes its name from the Greek word for “hidden,” kryptos.

11. STRONTIUM (38)

The only chemical element named after a place in Britain, strontium takes its name from its mineral ore strontianite, which was in turn named after the town of Strontian in the Scottish Highlands near where it was discovered in 1790. 

12. YTTRIUM (39)

In 1787, a Swedish Army officer and part-time chemist named Carl Axel Arrhenius came across an unusually heavy, black-colored rock in the waste heap of a quarry near the village of Ytterby, 15 miles outside Stockholm. He named his discovery ytterbite, and sent a sample of the mineral to his colleague, Professor Johan Gadolin (the namesake of element number 64, gadolinium), at Åbo University in modern-day Finland. Gadolin found that it contained an element that was entirely new to science, which he called yttrium; since then, many more elements have been discovered in Ytterby’s mine, and three more—terbium (65), erbium (68), ytterbium (70)—have been given names honoring the village in which it was discovered. Consequently, the tiny Swedish village of Ytterby remains the most-honored location on the entire periodic table. 

13. ANTIMONY (51)

To etymologists, antimony is probably the most troublesome of all chemical element names, and its true origin remains a mystery. Instead, various unproven theories claim that it might derive from Greek words meaning “floret” (a reference to the spiky appearance of its ore, stibnite), “against solitude” (a reference to the idea that it never appears naturally in its pure form), and even “monk-killer” (as antimony is poisonous, and many early alchemists were monks).

14. XENON (54)

Like xenophobia, xenon takes its name from a Greek word, xenos, meaning “strange” or “foreign.”


Because of the greenish color of its mineral salts, the lanthanide metal praseodymium takes its name from a Greek word meaning “green,” prasios—which in turn takes its name from the Greek word for a leek, prason. The dymium part is more complicated. In 1842, a new “element” was discovered called didymium, from the Greek for "twin," so named because it was always accompanied with cerium and lanthanum (and possibly because the namer had two pairs of twins of his own). Forty years later, scientists split didymium into two different elements, praseodidymium (green twin) and neodidymium (new twin). The di- was dropped almost instantly, leaving neodymium and praseodymium.

16. SAMARIUM (62)

Several famous names are commemorated on the periodic table, including Albert Einstein (einsteinium, 99), Niels Bohr (bohrium, 107), Enrico Fermi (fermium, 100), Alfred Nobel (nobelium, 102), and Pierre and Marie Curie (curium, 96). The earliest eponymous element, however, was the little-known metal samarium, which indirectly took its name from an equally little-known Russian mining engineer called Vasili Samarsky-Bykhovets. In the early 1800s, Samarsky was working as chief clerk of the Russian mining department when he granted a German mineralogist named Gustav Rose access to a collection of samples taken from a mine in the Ural Mountains. Rose discovered a new mineral in one of the samples, which he named samarskite in Samarsky’s honor; decades later, in 1879, de Boisbaudran found that samarskite contained an element that was new to science, which in turn he named samarium


Eleven years after discovering gallium and 7 years after discovering samarium, de Boisbaudran discovered the rare earth element dysprosium in 1886. It took him 30 attempts to isolate a pure sample—and consequently he named it after dysprositos, a Greek word meaning “hard to get at.”

18. TANTALUM (73)

Ten times rarer than gold in the universe, tantalum is a hard, silvery metal known for its resistance to corrosion and its chemical inertness, both of which make it extremely useful in the manufacture of laboratory equipment and medical implants. Although it’s sometimes said to have been named for the “tantalizing” frustration early chemists experienced in trying to obtain a pure sample, it’s tantalum’s unreactiveness that is the real origin of its name: Because it appears unaffected by practically anything it is submerged in or brought into contact with, tantalum is named for Tantalus, a character in Greek mythology who was punished by being forced to stand knee-deep in a pool of water below a fruit tree, both of which drew away from him whenever he reached out to eat or drink (a story which is also the origin of the word tantalize). Incidentally, Tantalus’s daughter Niobe also features on the periodic table as the namesake of element 41, niobium.

19. URANIUM (92)

Uranium was discovered by the German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth in 1789, who named it honor of the planet Uranus, which had also only recently been discovered. When elements 93 and 94 were discovered in 1940, they were named neptunium and plutonium so as to continue the sequence of planets.


The invention of the periodic table is credited to the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869, whose organization of the table allowed him not only to predict the existence of elements that had yet to be discovered at the time, but to correct what was generally understood about the properties of some existing elements. Element number 101, mendelevium, is appropriately named in his honor.

Essential Science
How Long to Steep Your Tea, According to Science

The tea in your cabinet likely has vague instructions about how long to steep the leaves. Bigelow, for instance, suggests two to four minutes for black tea, and one to three minutes for green tea. According to Lipton, you should "try singing the National Anthem" while waiting for black tea leaves to infuse.

But while it's true that tea brewed for 30 seconds is technically just as drinkable as a forgotten mug of tea that's been steeping for 30 minutes, drinkable shouldn't be your goal. Taste and—depending on the tea you're drinking—antioxidant and caffeine levels all depend on the amount of time the leaves are in contact with the water. So how early is too early to pluck out a tea bag, and how long can you leave it in before passing the point of no return?


To achieve the perfect timing, you first need to understand the chemical process at work when you pour hot water over tea leaves. Black, green, white, and oolong tea all come from the leaves and buds of the same plant, Camellia sinensis. (Herbal teas aren't considered "true teas" because they don't come from C. sinensis.) The teas are processed differently: Green and white tea leaves are heated to dry them, limiting the amount of oxidation they get, while black and oolong tea leaves are exposed to oxygen before they're dried, creating the chemical reactions that give the tea its distinct color and flavor. Damaging the tea leaves—by macerating them, rolling them gently, or something in between—helps expose the chemicals inside their cells to varying levels of oxygen.

Both green and black teas contain a lot of the same chemical compounds that contribute to their flavor profiles and nutritional content. When the leaves are submerged in hot water, these compounds leach into the liquid through a process called osmotic diffusion, which occurs when there's fluid on both sides of a selectively permeable membrane—in this case, the tea leaf. Compounds on the surface of the leaf and in the interior cells damaged by processing will diffuse into the surrounding liquid until the compounds in both the leaf and the water reach equilibrium. In other words, if given enough time to steep, the liquid in your mug will become just as concentrated with tea compounds as the liquid in your tea leaves, and the ratio will stay that way.

Osmotic diffusion doesn't happen all at once—different compounds enter the water at different rates based on their molecular weight. The light, volatile chemicals that contribute to tea's aroma and flavor profile dissolve the fastest, which is why the smell from a bag of tea leaves becomes more potent the moment you dunk it in water. The next group of compounds to infuse with the water includes the micronutrients flavanols and polyphenols, which are antioxidants, and caffeine. They're followed by heavier flavanols and polyphenols such as tannins, which are the compounds responsible for tea's bitter flavor. (They're also what make your mouth feel dry after drinking a glass of wine.) Tea also has amino acids like theanine, which can offset the sharpness of tannins.

Water temperature is another factor to take into consideration when steeping your tea. High water temperature creates more kinetic energy, which encourages the compounds to dissolve. "The heat helps you to extract the compounds out of the tea leaves," Shengmin Sang, a North Carolina A&T State University researcher who studies the chemistry of tea, tells Mental Floss. "If you put it into cold water or low-temperature water, the efficiency to extract these compounds out of the leaves will be much lower." But not all water is equal: Bigelow Tea recommends using water at a rolling boil for black tea, and barely boiling water for green tea.


Osmotic diffusion takes place whether you use loose leaves or tea bags, but there are some notable differences between the two. When given room to expand, loose tea leaves swell to their full capacity, creating more room for water to flow in and extract all those desirable compounds. Tea that comes prepackaged in a bag, on the other hand, only has so much room to grow, and the quality suffers as a result. This is why some tea companies have started selling tea in roomier, pyramid-shaped bags, though the size matters more than the shape.

But even before the tea touches the water, there's a difference in quality. Loose leaf tea usually consists of whole leaves, while most teabags are filled with broken pieces of tea leaves called dust or fannings, which have less-nuanced flavors and infuse fewer antioxidants than whole leaves, no matter how long you let them steep.

So if you have a choice, go with loose leaf. But if tea bags are all you have on hand, don't bother adjusting your brewing method: The difference in taste and antioxidants isn't something that can be fixed with a few extra minutes, and according to Sang, you should follow the same steeping times for both tea bags and loose leaf.

To calculate the perfect brew times for what's in your mug, first consider what you want most out of your drink.


Suggested steeping time: 2 minutes, 30 seconds to 5 minutes

Tea leaves are packed with beneficial compounds. Research indicates that flavanols such as catechins and epicatechins, found in both green and black teas, help suppress inflammation and curb plaque build-up in arteries. Drinking tea may improve vascular reactivity, which dictates how well blood vessels adjust to stress. According an analysis of multiple tea-related studies published in the European Journal of Epidemiology in 2015, drinking three cups of tea a day reduces your risk of coronary heart disease by 27 percent, cardiac death by 26 percent, and total mortality by 24 percent. Polyphenolic antioxidants in tea may also protect against diabetes, depression, and liver disease.

Past research has shown that it takes 100 to 150 seconds to extract half the polyphenol content from green and black tea leaves. According to a study published in 2016 in the journal Beverages, you can get more polyphenols into your drink if you allow the leaves more time to steep. However, the returns may not be worth the extra effort: Most of the compounds the researchers measured after 10 minutes of steeping were extracted in the first 5 minutes.

Sang makes another argument for not waiting too long to drink your tea. Antioxidants are slightly unstable, which means they will eventually break down and lose their healthy properties after infusing with water. “After you extract the compounds from the tea bag, you can not keep the solution for too long,” he says. “Because these compounds are not stable, they will be oxidized. So if you brew it in the morning, then you drink it in the afternoon, that's not good.” This oxidation can occur even after the tea leaves are removed from the cup, so if your tea has been sitting out for a few hours, it's better to brew a new batch than to pop it in the microwave.


Suggested steeping time: 3 to 5 minutes

Though less potent than its rival coffee, a properly brewed cup of tea packs a caffeine punch. According to a 2008 study published in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology [PDF], letting your tea brew for at least a few minutes has a big impact on the caffeine content. The study found that after brewing for one minute, a cup of regular Lipton black tea had 17 milligrams of caffeine per 6 ounces of water, 38 milligrams per 6 ounces after three minutes, and 47 milligrams per 6 ounces after five. (The nutritional information for Lipton black tea says a serving contains 55 milligrams of caffeine per 8 ounces, so it's pretty accurate.)

Some people may use those numbers as an excuse to steep their tea past the five-minute mark in an attempt to reach 100 percent dissolution. But a longer brewing time doesn't necessarily equal a stronger caffeine kick. Yes, more caffeine molecules will enter the tea, but so will other compounds like thearubigins. Caffeine works because it's perfectly shaped to bind to certain neuroreceptors in your brain, thus blocking the chemicals that tell you to feel tired. But caffeine is the right shape to bind to thearubigins as well, and if that happens first, less caffeine will get to those neuroreceptors. So if you're looking for a highly caffeinated cup of tea, you should remove the leaves after most of the caffeine has been extracted—after about three to five minutes—rather than waiting for every last milligram of caffeine to dissolve.


Suggested steeping time: 1 to 3 minutes

There's nothing wrong with enjoying a cup of tea for taste alone. Flavor is the most subjective factor influenced by steeping times, but for the sake of simplicity, let's assume you prefer a pronounced tea taste that's not overshadowed by bitterness. To extract those more delicate flavors, you don't need to steep your tea leaves for very long at all. Some of the first volatile organic compounds to break down in tea are geraniol and phenylacetaldehyde, tied to a tea's floral aroma, and linalool and linalool oxide, which give tea its sweetness.

The other compounds we associate with tea's distinctive taste are tannins. They're the difference between an aromatic, fruity cup of tea and a bitter cup that needs to be diluted with milk before it's palatable. But tannins aren't all bad: Some people prefer their tea to have a bracing astringency. Because tannins are some of the last molecules to dissolve into tea, if you want to add some bitter complexity to your drink, steep your tea for a minute or two longer than you normally would. A good way to keep track of the strength of your tea is to look at the color: Like tannins, pigments are heavy compounds, so if you see your tea getting darker, that means it's getting stronger as well.

And what about herbal teas? Feel free to leave the leaves in as long as you like. Because herbal teas are high in aromatic compounds and low in tannins, drinkers can be more liberal with their steep times without worrying about getting that astringent taste. Some teas, like rooibos and chamomile, also contain antioxidants, which is another reason to take your time.

And if you're new to the world of tea and aren't sure what your preferences are, put a kettle on the stove and start experimenting.

Mario Tama, Getty Images
Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano Is Causing Another Explosive Problem: Laze
Mario Tama, Getty Images
Mario Tama, Getty Images

Rivers of molten rock aren't the only thing residents near Hawaii's Kilauea volcano have to worry about. Lava from recent volcanic activity has reached the Pacific Ocean and is generating toxic, glass-laced "laze," according to Honolulu-based KITV. Just what is this dangerous substance?

Molten lava has a temperature of about 2000°F, while the surrounding seawater in Hawaii is closer to 80°F. When this super-hot lava hits the colder ocean, the heat makes the water boil, creating powerful explosions of steam, scalding hot water, and projectile rock fragments known as tephra. These plumes are called lava haze, or laze.

Though it looks like regular steam, laze is much more dangerous. When the water and lava combine, and hot lava vaporizes seawater, a series of reactions causes the formation of toxic gas. Chloride from the sea salt mixes with hydrogen in the steam to create a dense, corrosive mixture of hydrochloric acid. The vapor forms clouds that then turn into acid rain.

Laze blows out of the ocean near a lava flow

That’s not the only danger. The lava cools down rapidly, forming volcanic glass—tiny shards of which explode into the air along with the gases.

Even the slightest encounter with a wisp of laze can be problematic. The hot, acidic mixture can irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. It's particularly hazardous to those with breathing problems, like people with asthma.

In 2000, two people died in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from inhaling laze coming from an active lava flow.

The problem spreads far beyond where the lava itself is flowing, pushing the problem downwind. Due to the amount of lava flowing into the ocean and the strength of the winds, laze currently being generated by the Kilauea eruptions could spread up to 15 miles away, a USGS geologist told Reuters.

[h/t Forbes]


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