Illustration of Chemical nomenclature

1813 Chemical nomenclature

The book of science

Tom Sharp

Jöns Jacob Berzelius chemistry Illustration of Chemical nomenclature

Chemical nomenclature

Chemical notation began with alchemists who associated each known metal with a planet and so used the planetary symbols for them. In 1787, Antoine Lavoisier proposed naming compounds by class and species, similar to Linnaeus’s system for plants and animals. After 1808, the state of art for describing chemical elements and their compounds were diagrams using John Dalton’s circular symbols. Today, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry maintains modern rules and standards for chemical nomenclature. This system began with a proposal by Jöns Jacob Berzelius suggesting instead of diagrams, using letters and numbers— the letters to be based on the Latin names of the elements, and the numbers to show their proportions in a compound.


Between symbols, Berzelius used plus signs for elements in a compound except for compounds “of first order.” To show proportions in compounds, Berzelius placed a number above the element symbol; today we use a subscript. It is also common today to place a superscript with a plus or minus sign to show the charge, the balance of protons and electrons. * The symbol for potassium is K because the Germans, including Berzelius, preferred the Latin name kalium. Tungsten was discovered in two minerals, tungsten and wolframite, and it has two names, tungsten and wolfram, with the symbol W.


A symbol may represent anything, but most symbols we see every day are mainly graphic mnemonics, because one can often see a cockeyed correspondence. The symbol at the men’s room wears pants; well, so do women, and men wear skirts. The symbols on a switch are O and |, one of which means on, and the other off. The meanings of hieroglyphs were lost even though they had been written in stone.

Humphry Davy’s name for potassium is from “potash,” which is from the fact that it was obtained from leaf or wood ashes in a pot. It might seem arbitrary; however, the origin of kalium in Latin is similar. Kalium is from Arabic al qalīy, which means “plant ashes.” The origin of language is association, or, as Ezra Pound claimed, all language is buried metaphor.

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