Questions and Answers
How do the elements on the table of elements get their chemical symbols?
There is a lot of human history buried in the periodic table. There are stories about how every element got its name. Most of the names are abbreviations for Latin words. There were certainly a lot of cultures who discovered some of the elements before the Roman Empire. Even though Romans probably didn't discover a lot of the elements, those Romans were very good at writing a lot of stuff down. Even 1,000 years after Rome fell, Latin was still the language of churches and academics. So the chemical abbreviation is usually derived from Latin words that probably do not match their common use name. An example is lead, whose Latin name is plumbum. Sounds like plumber doesn't it? That is because they discovered that lead was an easy metal to work with. They used it for pipes to transport water and sewage. Since they worked with lead, people called them plumbers. Unfortunately, the people didn't know how toxic lead was. The lead got into the water and then into the brains of the people who drank the water. Believe me, it wasn't a good thing! A lot of people got very sick. The more recently discovered or even artificially created atoms were named by their discoverers. It is somewhat tacky to name an element after oneself, so all the later elements were named after things like other famous scientists, countries, or whatever the discoverers felt like naming them.