Elements Named for Places


As schoolchildren, we are all exposed to the periodic table of the elements in our science textbooks and on the walls of our chemistry classrooms.  This organised display of the chemical elements – the pure chemical substances that are the building blocks of all molecules – ingrains the names, symbols, and atomic weights of the 118 elements that have been identified in our heads.  98 of these elements occur naturally on Earth (although some only in trace amounts); the other 20 have been artificially produced within laboratories.  The names of elements derive from a number of different sources: ancient or longstanding names for those elements discovered in days of yore (e.g., gold, silver, antimony); descriptive names for elements that exhibit a certain characteristic (the most common source of element names, usually derived from a Greek adjective), or eponymic names for elements named after people (e.g., curium, einsteinium, bohrium).

This is a geography website, however, and so it should come as no surprise that this article is most concerned with those elements that have geographically-derived names.  While the practice of naming elements after places is becoming increasingly common due to the need to find names for synthetically-created laboratory elements, the practice as a regular occurrence dates back to the mid-19th century (and technically, it dates as far back as the name for copper, as you’ll find out below).  Of the 118 identified elements, 32 derive their name from a toponym.  As you’ll see below, because much of the influence in the field of nuclear physics has been held by a select few laboratories, there is a surprising amount of repetition in terms of name sources.

Americium (95 Am): Named for (the United States of) America, the land where the element was discovered during the course of the Manhattan Project, the US-led World War II programme that would develop the first atomic bomb.  Two members of the team that helped discover americium, Glenn Seaborg and Albert Ghiorso, were part of teams based out of the University of California, Berkeley’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that were ultimately responsible for discovering or co-discovering 13 different elements between 1940 and 1974.  Among these elements, berkelium (97 Bk)and californium (98 Cf)were discovered by this team in 1949 and 1950, respectively, and named accordingly.

The Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory.

Cerium (58 Ce) and palladium (46 Pd): In the early 19th century, chemists were discovering all sorts of elements; for example, just between 1801 and 1809 twelve different elements were isolated for the first time.  Also during this decade, astronomers were discovering the first known asteroids.  Two of these extraterrestrial bodies would lend their names to newly-discovered elements.  The first asteroid to be discovered, Ceres (today classified as a dwarf planet) was discovered on the last day of 1801.  When the great Swedish chemist Jöns Jakob Berzelius co-discovered the element with the atomic number of 58 in 1803, he would name it after the recently discovered Ceres (itself named for the Roman god of agriculture).  At the same time in England, William Hyde Wollaston had discovered the element with the atomic number of 46 and also intended to name this element for Ceres.  Wollaston, however, did not immediately publish his results (in fact, he instead made his first announcement of his discovery by selling samples of his newly-discovered metal in a London mineralogical shop) and by the time he went public with his discovery, cerium has already been announced by Berzelius.  Wollaston thus went with the name of the second asteroid to be discovered, Pallas, first observed in March 1802.

Copper (29 Cu): The English copperis derived from the Latin cuprum, a simplification of an older Latin name for the metal, aes Cyprium, which in turn comes from the Greek name for Cyprus.  The island was a major source of the metal in Roman times.   While other, larger countries have long surpassed Cyprus in terms of overall production, mining continues on the island.  The association of Cyprus with copper is perhaps best evidenced by the flag of Cyprus in which the entire island is coloured in copper.


Darmstadtium (110 Ds) and hassium (108 Hs): Darmstadt, one of the major cities of the German state of Hesse, is home to the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research, a laboratory responsible for the discovery of six elements between 1982 and 1996.  While four of these elements have been named for prominent scientists, hassium (from the Latin name of the state, Hassia) and darmstadtium were named for the home of the laboratory.

Dubnium (105 Db): The city of Dubna in Russia’s Moscow Oblast was originally developed in the immediate post-World War II era to serve as the hub of nuclear physics research in the Soviet Union.  The research laboratory eventually developed into the international Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR).  Since 1956, the JINR has been responsible for the discovery or co-discovery of eleven separate elements.  Dubna emerged as a compromise naming candidate when the two co-discoverers (the JINR prepared the element in 1968 and proposed the name nielsbohrium after the Danish physicist Niels Bohr; the Berkeley Laboratory prepared the element in 1970 and proposed the name hahnium after the german chemist Otto Hahn).  It was not until 1997 that dubnium was finally approved once and for all.

Erbium (68 Er), terbium (65 Tb), ytterbium (70 Yb), and yttrium (39 Y): Amazingly, all four of these elements are named after Ytterby, a small suburban island village east of Stockholm, Sweden.  It all has to do with a 1787 discovery made in the dumps of a small rock quarry in the village made by a student of Berzelius/naval lieutenant named Carl Axel Arrhenius.  There, Arrhenius would come across a black ore that was far too heavy and metallic to be coal.  Naming the ore ytterbite, Arrhenius sent the sample off for analysis to various chemists.  This single rock sample would go on to produce ten separate new elements over the next century-and-a-half.

The Finnish-Swedish chemist Johan Gadolin would be the first chemist to discover an entirely new element within the sample, finding that 38% of the black ore was composed of an entirely new ‘earth type’.  Naming the newly-discovered ore ytterbia in 1794 (shortened three years later to yttria) after Arrhenius’ ytterbite, the element first isolated from yttria by convention took the name yttrium.  In 1843, Carl Gustav Mosander, another Swedish chemist, would discover two more unique parts within the yttria sample, which he termed erbia and terbia (giving rise to erbium and terbium).

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, different pieces of the sample were further isolated, producing even more elements.  In 1878, the last variation on the name of Ytterby, ytterbium, was discovered. Further elements discovered from that original ore sample would thus have to take on names derived from other sources.  Many of these newer elements stuck with Scandinavian-themed names: holmium (67 Ho) for Stockholm; scandium (21 Sc), taken from the Latin name for Scandinavia, Scandia; and thulium (69 Tm), named for the mythical land of Thule commonly associated with Scandinavia.  Even places that don’t have a direct connection to Ytterby were commemorated in elements isolated from that original rock sample.  A part of the sample was sent off to Paris, and it was in Paris that ytterbium, holmium, and gadolinium (named for Gadolin) were first isolated.  The final element to be isolated from the sample would be named for Paris, lutetium (71 Lu, after Lutetia, the name of Paris during Roman rule).  Besides gadolinium, the only non-topoynymically named element to come from Ytterby was dyprosium, taken from the Greek term for ‘hard to get at’.


The commemorative plaque at the quarry in Ytterby.  Source: Uwezi, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ASM_ytterbymine.jpg.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

Europium (63 Eu): Named by its French discover Eugene Demarcay for Europe.

Francium (87 Fr) and gallium (31 Ga): In addition to lutetium, France is also represented with francium and gallium (from the Latin Gallia).  Gallium actually came first, discovered in 1875 by Paul Émile (François) Lecoq de Boisbaudran.  Francium would not be named until 1939, when the French physicist Marguerite Perey, a student of Marie Curie, discovered it.

Germanium (32 Ge): Following gallium in the periodic table is germanium, discovered in 1886 by Clemens Winkler.  Initially, his plan was to name the element neptunium after the planet Neptune (just as the existence of Neptune had been mathematically predicted, so had the existence of the 32nd element), but neptunium had already been temporarily bestowed on what would eventually be termed niobium.  Winkler thus renamed his discovery after his home country of Germany.

Hafnium (72 Hf): Hafnia is the Latin name for Copenhagen, where this element was first isolated in 1923.

Livermorium (116 Lv*): This is the proposed name for the 116th element, temporarily named ununhexium (‘one-one-six’-ium) until a permanent name is agreed upon.  Discovered in 2000 at Dubna, this discovery, as have all of the elemental discoveries from 113 onward, was a collaborative effort between scientists from the JINR and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory at Livermore, California.

Magnesium (12 Mg) and manganese (25 Mn): As with magnetite, the iron oxide ore with which most people associate the term ‘magnetic’, these two elements are named for Magnesia, the region of Thessaly, Greece with which they were associated with in antiquity.  ‘Manganese’ is a borrowing from Italian and itself a corruption of ‘Magnesia’.


Magnesia (red) within Thessaly (orange) and Greece (yellow).

Uranium (92 U), neptunium (93 Np), and plutonium (94 Pu): These three elements named for the three outermost planets of the solar system (Pluto, of course, was eventually downgraded to the status of dwarf planet) occur in succession in the periodic table.  Uranium was first isolated in 1789 and named for the most recently discovered planet of the day, Uranus (discovered in 1781 in the same wave of astrological discoveries that would find Ceres and Pallas).  When the 93rd and 94thelements were finally discovered during 1940-41 at the Berkeley lab after irradiating uranium with neutrons (93) and bombarding uranium with deuterons(94), it only made sense to name them systematically after the element from which they were derived.

Polonium (84 Po): One of the two elements discovered by Pierre and Marie Curie at the turn of the 20th century, polonium takes its name from Poland, the homeland of Marie Curie (Pierre Curie’s home of France was already commemorated by this point with gallium).

Rhenium (75 Re): This element was actually discovered in 1908 by the Japanese scientist Masataka Ogawa, who named it nipponium after Japan.  Ogawa, however, believed that he had found the 43rd element rather than the 75th.  It would not be until 1925 that a German team isolated the element and properly determined its atomic number. Rhenus is the Latin term for the Rhine River, and the Rhineland was the home of one of the co-discoverers, Ida Eva Tacke.

Ruthenium (44 Ru): When large tracts of platinum were discovered in the Ural Mountains in 1824, samples were sent to Berzelius and his Russian collaborator Gottfried Osann.  While Berzelius could not identify any new metals within the sample, Osann was able to detect three new metals, one of which he named ruthenium after Ruthenia, the Latin term for the land of the Kievan Rus (today, Ruthenia is more commonly association with Ukraine rather all of the land of the Kievan Rus which included most of European Russia and Belarus).  Unable to isolate the elements within, the formal discovery of ruthenium would wait until 1844 when another Russian scientist of German descent, Karl Claus, was able to do so.  He kept the term ruthenium both in deference to Osann and in recognition of the metal’s Russian origin.

Strontium (38 Sr): Mining for lead in and around the small village of Strontian in the Scottish Highlands began during the 1720s.  By 1790, it was realised that much of the raw material from which the lead was being harvested, called strontianite after the village, was also housing an entirely distinct type of mineral. Over the next two decades, a number of scientists would independently confirm the existence would become known as strontium; its first confirmed isolation was by the Cornish chemist Humphry Davy in 1808.

For more information on the history behind the names of elements, the only place you need to visit, really, is Peter van der Krogt’s Elementymology & Elements Multidict; an incredible assemblage of information that can occupy you for hours.

Further Reading

International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry (2011).  Start of the Name Approval Process for the Elements of Atomic Number 114 and 116.  1 December 2011.  Available at http://www.iupac.org/news/news-detail/article/start-of-the-name-approval-process-for-the-elements-of-atomic-number-114-and-116.html/.  Accessed 20 April 2012.

Kean, S. (2010).  Ytterby: The Tiny Swedish Island That Gave the Periodic Table Four Different Elements.  Slate, 16 July 2010.  Available at http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/elements/features/2010/blogging_the_periodic_table/ytterby_the_tiny_swedish_island_that_gave_the_periodic_table_four_different_elements.html.  Accessed 20 April 2012.

van der Krogt, P. (2010).  Elementymology & Elements Multidict.  Available at http://elements.vanderkrogt.net/index.php.  Accessed 20 April 2012.

Winter, M. (2012).  WebElements.  Available at http://www.webelements.com/.  Accessed 20 April 2012.

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