How to Find an Interesting Name for a New Chemical Element

Naming Elements

Most recently discovered elements are named after important chemists, physicists or places

Usually an international team of chemists “baptises” every new chemical discovered, taking suggestions from the researchers involved in the discovery. Even if only a few molecules have been produced, with no major impact outside the field, the new chemical still deserves a name.

Deciding on the name is not always easy, but in most cases of recently discovered elements, the team has opted to honour an important chemist or physicist; or use a relevant place, from continents to a remote village in the north of Scotland.

Elements named after people

  • Bohrium – Niels Bohr, Danish physicist
  • CuriumPierre Curie and Marie Curie, one of the most famous science couples
  • Einsteinium – Albert Einstein, German-born theoretical physicist
  • Fermium – Enrico Fermi, Italian physicist
  • Gadolinium – named after gadolinite, which is in turn named after Finish geologist Johan Gadolin
  • Gallium – technically named after Gallia (Latin for France), but often associated with discoverer Lecoq de Boisbaudran (lecoq is gallus in latin)
  • Lawrencium – Ernest Lawrence, American physicist
  • Meitnerium – Lise Meitner, Austrian physicist
  • Mendelevium – Dmitri Mendeleev, most famous Russian chemist for his development of the periodic table
  • NobeliumAlfred Nobel, Swedish chemist
  • Roetgenium – Wilhelm Roentgen, German physicist
  • Rutherfordium – Ernest Rutherford, New Zealand-born physicist
  • Samarium – Russian mine official Colonel Vasili Samarsky-Bykhovets was the first person to have a chemical named after him
  • Seaborgium – Glenn Seaborg, American chemist

In addition, some elements can be named after fictional characters, including promethium, named after a Titan in Greek mythology; and thorium, named after Thor, the Norse God of thunder.

Elements named after places

  • Americium – America
  • Berkelium – University of California, Berkeley
  • Californium – California
  • Copper – some believe it was named after Cyprus
  • Darmstadtium – Darmstady, Germany
  • Dubnium – Dubna, Russia
  • Erbium, terbium, Ytterbium and Yttrium – Ytterby, Sweden. At a quarry mine near the village, a rare mineral was discovered and named yttria. Upon detailed examinations, four new chemicals were found and all named after this small village in Sweden.
  • Europium – Europe
  • Francium –France
  • Germanium – Germany
  • Hafnium – Copenhagen (Hafnia in latin)
  • Hassium – Hesse, Germany
  • Holmium – Stockholm (Holmia in latin)
  • Lutetium – Paris (Lutetia in Latin)
  • Magnesium – Magnesia, Greece
  • Polonium – Poland
  • Rhenium – River Rhine
  • Ruthenium – Ruthenia (Eastern Europe)
  • Scandium – Scandinavia
  • StrontiumStrontian, Scotland
  • Thulium – Thule (mythical island, possibly Scandinavia)

Sometimes, our planet is not enough to find a name and some chemicals were named after celestial bodies, such as helium – after helios (greek for sun) – and selenium – after selene (greek for moon).

Naming chemical elements is a somewhat delicate operation, and over the years a few controversies have arisen. Next week, we’ll see how the Cold War in the 60s even reached chemical nomenclature.

Alex Reis
Alex Reis is a freelance science writer, with a particular expertise in the field of biological sciences. She has several years experience in scientific writing and research, with various scientific manuscripts published in high impact factor journals, including Nature Cell Biology, as well as articles promoted in more mainstream publications.
Alex Reis
Alex Reis
Alex Reis

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  1. Please help!
    What is the only continent with a chemical elemant named for it?
    Thanks for Your help.

  2. Richard P. Easterbrook says:

    The element naming procedures often break down when Brits are involved. Apparent examples:
    Oxygen – discovered Priestley/Scheele – named Lavoisier
    Hydrogen – discovered Cavendish – named Lavoisier
    Niobium – discovered Hatchett – named Heinrich Rose
    Titanium – discovered Gregor – named Klaproth
    You list names of people and places used for elements but I find it strange that the country credited with involvement in the most discoveries has only one element (strontium) that reflects this and the person credited with discovery of the most elements is not recognised in any names.

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