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Why do the names of most chemical elements end with -um or -ium for both primordial and synthetic elements?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 11 down vote accepted

To expand on @BelieveInvis's answer -- in the early 19th century, when the Royal Society was really in the swing of things, the dominant language of scholarship was still Latin. Since Latin didn't have words for the new metallic elements, new words were coined from the existing terms for the substances and given Latinate endings.

From the OED's entry on -ium:

The Latin names of metals were in -um, e.g. aurum, argentum, ferrum; the names of sodium, potassium, and magnesium, derived from soda, potassa or potash, and magnesia, were given by Davy in 1807, with the derivative form -ium; and although some of the later metals have received names in -um, the general form is in -ium, as in cadmium, iridium, lithium, osmium, palladium, rhodium, titanium, uranium; in conformity with which aluminum has been altered to aluminium.

So, I think after that, other elements were simply given the suffix to fit the generally useful naming scheme, and then, metal names which were already in common use kept their common language names (e.g. gold as opposed to aurum) simply by force of usage.

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The -ium suffix is a Latin suffix which forms abstract nouns, thus it is used to form chemical elements' name from its naming origin, such as minerals (calcium from calx) or person names (gadolinium).

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