The symbol from the periodic table for Potassium is "K". This fits my native language (dutch), where Potassium is called "Kalium". The same question applies to Sodium (Na), which again in Dutch is called "Natrium". A quick look at Wikipedia showed that Potassium is mainly used as a word in Roman based languages (French, Spanish) and to my surprise in English. What is the history behind this?

  • $\begingroup$ You can read this article for more information about the history of nomenclature of potassium. $\endgroup$ Apr 4, 2016 at 14:05
  • $\begingroup$ @NilayGhosh that looks like it would answer the question to me - mind if I write it up properly? $\endgroup$
    – tardigrade
    Jul 25, 2016 at 8:58
  • $\begingroup$ @tardigrade no problem. $\endgroup$ Aug 4, 2016 at 11:12

3 Answers 3


(with thanks to @NilayGhosh, who provided the key source for much of this answer)

Short answer: Potassium was called Potassium (and Sodium Sodium) by Humphry Davy, who first isolated both; it was then renamed Kalium in Germanic countries because of a previous naming proposal by Klaproth, who was the first to show that potassium carbonate and sodium carbonate were different.

Until at least the Middle Ages no distinction was drawn between potash (potassium carbonate) and soda (sodium carbonate). Martin Heinrich Klaproth first distinguished them in 1797, and suggested the name 'kali' for the first and 'natron' for the second.

Metallic potassium and sodium were then isolated for the first time in 1807 by Sir Humphry Davy, by electrolysis of potassium hydroxide (KOH) and sodium hydroxide (NaOH) respectively. He named his discoveries Potassium and Sodium in the Bakerian lecture at the Royal Society on the 19th of November the same year:

Potasium and Sodium are the names by which I have ventured to call the two new substances


(During the lecture he also apparently produced a nugget of metallic potassium and tossed it into a flask of water, "where the lump skittered around the surface of the water before exploding in lavender flames".)

This paper was translated into German by Ludwig Wilhelm Gilbert (supposedly in Annalen der Physik, although I can't find the original paper in any of the volumes from 1809). According to the article on vanderkrogt.net Gilbert replaced Potassium with Kalium and Sodium with Natronium "in agreement with German nomenclature" (i.e. following Klaproth's suggested names). From this point on, generally speaking, English- and French-speaking countries followed Davy's naming system, while the Germanic countries followed that of Klaproth/Gilbert, as can be seen from the sidebar lists here (potassium) and here (sodium).

Regarding the atomic symbols mismatch: the international system of atomic symbols was devised by the Swedish chemist Jacob Berzelius, a rival of Davy's, who followed the naming convention used by Germanic countries. Although actually, when first published (1813, in Thomas Thomson's Annals of Philosophy), Berzelius did follow Davy's names and used the symbols Po and So. Within a year he had switched to K/Na. So since the first publication of Berzelius' system actually followed Davy and used Po/So, the real surprise is that we ended up using K/Na.


It derive from the word "potash" (pot ashes - ashes of vegetable).

Sodium hydroxide, which was obtained from the ashes of marine plants, are confused over time with potassium hydroxide, from the ashes of land plants and both were called "alqili", an Arabic word meaning "ashes of plants."

Later, both substances were differed between "vegetable alkali" for land plants and "mineral alkali" for marine plants. Later, they received the English names "potash" and "soda".

As a symbol for potassium is take the first letter of the Latin word "kalium".

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    $\begingroup$ While this answer does (somewhat) explain the sources of the names "Potassium" and "Kalium", it does not explain why English ended up adopting the former name, while most other languages settled on the latter. $\endgroup$ Aug 16, 2015 at 19:19

According to the Dutch wikipedia, the word Potassium is based on the Dutch word "potas". So it's actually derived from your (our) own language. The explanation is the same as the last contributor already explained. It's kind of weird that we ended up using the word Kalium instead of Potassium though. But well, we did.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Chemistry.SE! Take the tour to get familiar with this site. Mathematical expressions and equations can be formatted using $\LaTeX$ syntax. For more information in general have a look at the help center. At the moment this, like the other post, does not answer the question why potassium was adopted in English. $\endgroup$ Oct 19, 2015 at 14:40

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