Have the modern Greek names for chemical elements known during antiquity (silver, copper, mercury, lead, gold, etc.) retained their Classical Greek names, or did they adopt Latin ones, or do they follow an international convention?

I'm unsure if this is the correct place to address this question as there's no Greek SE site and meta seems a bit open ended about it.

  • $\begingroup$ What about the SE site "History of science and mathematics? hsm.stackexchange.com $\endgroup$
    – Poutnik
    May 22, 2021 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps not a lot of named ‘true’ elements in Classical Greek, depending on your cutoff for when Classical ends. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    May 22, 2021 at 17:36
  • $\begingroup$ I don't understand what you are asking about. Is it about which element names had greek roots? Also are names of elements different in modern Greek (from English)? $\endgroup$
    – S R Maiti
    May 22, 2021 at 20:24
  • $\begingroup$ I am voting to close the question as it's unclear what exactly you are asking for. $\endgroup$
    – S R Maiti
    May 23, 2021 at 10:34
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Relevant video. In short, "molybdenum" is named after the Greek name of lead "μόλυβδος (molybdos)". Why? Because, the mineral from which molydenum was extracted was named "molybdenite(MoS2)" deriving from that name due to it being showing similar "writing properties" as lead (both lead and molydenite left a mark when rubbed against a paper). $\endgroup$ May 23, 2021 at 10:41

1 Answer 1


For "old" elements (i.e., known / discovered before the advent of a body like IUPAC), there was no uniform and universal rule. You see this heritage by comparison of the name of an element assigned in different languages; languages in neighboring countries may but need not to share their approach. E.g., $\ce{_7N}$: nitrogen (English), nitrógeno (Spanish), nitrogen (Nowegian Norsk bokmal); azoto (Portuguese), azoto (Italian), azote (French), azot (Polish), azotas (Lithuanian), aзо́т (Russian), άζωτο (Greek); stikstof (Dutch), Stickstoff (German); dusík (Czech), etc. for a few examples you may encounter in Europe.

For newly discovered / newly synthesized elements beyond atomic number 100, IUPAC published (back in 1979) a recommendation how to name them systematically. For this you have the roots

0 = nil, 1 = un, 2 = bi, 3 = tri, 4 = quad, 5 = pent, 6 = hex, 7 = sept, 8 = oct, 9 = enn

(Pure & Appl. Chem. 51, 1979, 381-384, open access)

Thus it was until specific agreement that unnilunium ($\ce{_{101}Unu}$) eventually was named mendelevium ($\ce{_{101}Md}$), and IUPAC continues to publish how to name the new elements (example).

Despite this report, however, the roots are neither pure Latin, nor Greek, but convention. Because there no tenners (like decem, vīgintī), or hundreds (like centum, ducentī), etc. Even spelling the numeri only by position, you would expect unus, duo, tres, quattuor, quinque, sex, septem, octo, novem for $1\dots9$ for the former.

For the names eventually adopted, IUPAC set the rules that these

"In keeping with tradition, elements are named after

  • a mythological concept or character (including an astronomical object);
  • a mineral, or similar substance;
  • a place or geographical region;
  • a property of the element; or
  • a scientist.

[...] The names of all new elements should have an ending that reflects and maintains historical and chemical consistency. This would be in general “-ium” for elements belonging to groups 1–16, “-ine” for elements of group 17 and “-on” for elements of group 18. N.B. The present recommendation is here more specific than that written in the 2002 document."

(Pure & Appl. Chem., 88, 2016, 401-505, open access)

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I am not sure if this actually answers the question at all, but I don't know what the OP is asking for. I am pretty sure though, they weren't asking for the naming conventions of superheavy elements. $\endgroup$
    – S R Maiti
    May 22, 2021 at 20:26
  • $\begingroup$ That 2002 IUPAC paper doesn't appear to be providing current info. when it says "the names of all new elements should end in “-ium”. Yes, the placeholder names all end in -ium, but that section isn't about placeholder names, it's about actual names. And for actual names, it's the metallic elements that end in -ium (that qualifier is seen elsewhere in that paper, not sure why they left it out there). Halogens, however end in -ine (e.g., Tennessine, #117); and noble gases end in -on (e.g., Oganesson, #118). $\endgroup$
    – theorist
    May 22, 2021 at 20:28
  • $\begingroup$ @theorist As just seen, there rules by 2002 were adjusted in 2016; the answer as edited accordingly. So far, I did not identify an additional change since then. $\endgroup$
    – Buttonwood
    May 22, 2021 at 20:57
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    $\begingroup$ @ShoubhikRMaiti The second part "in keeping tradition" reads for me like a continuation of what was done in the past, equally covering the lighter elements. E.g., tellurium, selenium, uranium about mythology, germanium / francium about geography, etc. Well, Tc. $\endgroup$
    – Buttonwood
    May 22, 2021 at 21:02
  • $\begingroup$ Worth adding that in the scandinavian languages there are also these differences, even when e.g. Norwegian and Swedish are very similar: nitrogen is "kväve" in Swedish, the equivalent of "Stickstoff" in German, but remains "nitrogen" in Danish and Norwegian. $\endgroup$
    – Buck Thorn
    Jul 12 at 6:43

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