I've found lists like this, which explain what different root words mean. But I'm looking for explanations of why those roots mean those things.

For example, why does carbonyl refer to a carbon double bonded to an oxygen? What is the historical rational behind why the -yl implies the oxygen double bond?

I'm hoping this gives me a little more intuition to remember what different chemical terminology means without brute-force memorization.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Huh, and can you learn a foreign language using such method? No, no you can't. And even if it's possible, it would be waste of time when one just needs to communicate. Etymology of like every single old name of compound, or group, element etc. is very different and such knowledge is not useful at all. What you should learn is nomenclature. $\endgroup$
    – Mithoron
    Jul 1, 2020 at 1:18
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ That's quite a sweeping declaration to say that such knowledge is not useful at all. In chemistry at least, some compound or element names are based on their macroscopic observable properties. And you can learn a great deal about languages based on etymologies. Memorizing nomenclature is useful but I'm looking for supplemental information. $\endgroup$
    – spacetyper
    Jul 1, 2020 at 2:03
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Mithoron "Etymology of like every single old name of compound, or group, element etc. is very different and such knowledge is not useful at all. " This is indeed a sweeping statement. English is apparently not your first language nor mine but it always helps to learn tidbit of etymologies. $\endgroup$
    – AChem
    Jul 1, 2020 at 3:23
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Why the downvotes? As far as I can tell this question is on-topic for this site and hasn't been asked before. $\endgroup$
    – spacetyper
    Jul 1, 2020 at 5:01
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Mithoron, What is the harm in asking for reference(s) on chemical etymologies? To the best of my knowledge there are no other books which need to be mentioned. All he needs to know are these list four books for his entire life. Should the OP generate one thousand posts for each word used in chemistry. In my humble opinion, this question has no problem. This topic is close to my heart as well that is why I wrote a detailed response including my own contributions. $\endgroup$
    – AChem
    Jul 1, 2020 at 15:55

1 Answer 1


It is a good question and many comprehensive works are available specifically on chemical etymologies. Many scholars have spent on portion of their life on chemical etymologies. Ignore these useless down votes or close votes. The answer essentially boils down to how money are you willing to spend? I would say, if you are really keen, go for OED.

After going through so many etymological dictionaries of science (mainly chemistry & mathematics), I still feel that the Unabridged Oxford Dictionary (> 20 volumes) is the best (https://www.oed.com/). It is not available for public use but one can buy subscription for a year at an affordable price. Most universities have it. There you can find the etymology for sure, the best part is that you can see the earliest use with original reference.

I will give you a taste of it. Say you want to find out where does the word alcohol come from? You can extend this that the suffix -ol indicates alcohol group. Perhaps it is too much for you but you can see the extent of depth of analysis. It is sometimes surprising that there might be no connection of older meanings with current meanings.

post-classical Latin alcohol, alcool, alcol, alcofol kohl (galena (lead sulphide) or stibnite (antimony sulphide)) (from 13th cent. in British sources), spirit, essence obtained by distillation (a1527 in Paracelsus in alcool vini , also alcohol vini ) (perhaps via Spanish alcohol: see below) < Arabic al-kuḥl , Spanish Arabic al-kuḥul < al the + kuḥl , Spanish Arabic kuḥul eye cosmetic, also denoting various specific substances used as eye cosmetics or eye unguents (compare kohl n.1) < the same base as Arabic kaḥala, Hebrew kāḥal (in the Bible only in an isolated attestation in Ezekiel 23:40), both in sense ‘to stain, to paint’, Akkadian guḫlu antimony (used as eye paint).

Compare Middle French alcohol, (rare) alcofol, French alcool, †alcohol, †alcol, †alkol, †alkool, etc., the chief senses of which are: ‘kohl, very fine powder’ (c1370 in a translation of Chauliac; the precise sense is often difficult to determine in early quots.), ‘essence obtained by distillation’ (1620, originally and chiefly with reference to spirit of wine), ‘ethanol’ (1792), ‘any of the members of a similar class of chemical compounds’ (1834: see note below). Compare also Spanish alcohol (c1200 as †alcofor; also †alcofol, †alcool, †alcol, etc.), the chief senses of which are: ‘powder used as eye cosmetic’ (c1200 as †alcofor), ‘galena, sulphide of lead’ (1541), ‘antimony, also any of various minerals containing antimony, especially stibnite’ (a1555 or earlier; in a number of early instances denoting minerals (from the second half of the 12th cent.) it is impossible to tell whether the word denotes galena (sulphide of lead) or antimony sulphide), ‘spirit of wine, ethanol’ (1730), ‘any of the members of a similar class of chemical compounds’ (1865).

On your specific query


< carbon n. + -yl suffix. Compare French carbonyle (1856 or earlier), German Carbonyl (1854 or earlier).

Further probing of -yl

Formerly occasionally -ule, a terminal element of chemical terms, < German -yl, < Greek ὕλη wood, matter, substance (see hyle n.), used for ‘chemical principle, radical’. It was introduced by Wöhler and Liebig ( Ann. der Pharm. (1832) III. 262), and first used by them in the term benzoyl; other early names were éthyle (éthule), élayle (Berzelius), dadyle, peucyle, citronyle, citryle (Blanchet and Sell). Some fifteen in anglicized form, including acetyl, amyl, cinnamyl, glyceryl, salicyl, appear in the Elements of Chemistry by T. Graham, 1842,

  1. If you find OED too much to digest, the next best etymological dictionary of chemistry is

Elsevier's Dictionary of Chemoetymology (1st Edition) The Whys and Whences of Chemical Nomenclature and Terminology by Alexander Senning.

It has 400 pages. For example, the entry aniline shows

aniline C6H7N, derived from al-nil (Arabic: indigo plant), ultimately from nila (Sanskrit: dark blue) – referring to the fact that aniline was first obtained by degradation of indigo

  1. The next one, which focussed on organic chemistry is

Organic Chemistry: The Name Game Modern Coined Terms and Their Origins (1st Edition)

by Alex Nickon and Ernest F. Silversmith,

This has plenty of fancy organic molecules from modern organic chemistry but at the end, they do list traditional names for example for benzene

benzene from Styrax benzoin, a tree native to Sumatra and Java. The bark yields a resin, gum benzoin, from which "benzoic acid" was obtained. Peligot (1833) and E. Mitscherlich (1834) heated benzoic acid with lime to form C6H6; Mitscherlich named it "benzine." Liebig preferred "benzol," but Laurent (1835) proposed "benzene."

Coming to free rides. Dr. John Andraos made a series of webpages by the name Modern Coined Glossary of Coined Names & Terms Used in Science to which I had heavily contributed more than a decade ago.

Here is a link: http://www.careerchem.com/NAMED/Glossary-Coined-Names.pdf

Another free source is Dr. William B. Jensen's lovely book "Ask the Historian". Simply Google "Ask the historian Jensen" and the first result is his book. He explain a lot of names, and even history of concepts. It was kind of him to make this book free of all of us. He has retired and he is no longer active.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ (+1) “You know the opinion of Cervantes? He said that reading a translation is like examining the back of a piece of tapestry.” Carl Sagan, Contact (the movie) $\endgroup$
    – Ed V
    Jul 1, 2020 at 3:33
  • $\begingroup$ Very true, Ed. As a translation promoter, I can say this is really true for art and literature indeed but fortunately not for science. $\endgroup$
    – AChem
    Jul 1, 2020 at 3:37
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This is awesome, thanks so much for putting together this comprehensive list and adding examples. I'll give it 24h before marking as answered. $\endgroup$
    – spacetyper
    Jul 1, 2020 at 4:57

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.