How Some Of Our Common Metals Got Their Names

Mercury
Have you ever wondered how many of the familiar, and not so familiar metals we're surrounded by got their names? And their sometimes seemingly totally unrelated symbols?

Actinium (Ac)…
…is a not very abundant radioactive metal. Actinium is silvery white in colour and has an eerie characteristic. It glows blue in the dark, which may be why it is named after the Greek word for 'ray' – aktinos. Actinium is produced as part of the decaying process of uranium-235.

Silver (Ag)…
…is one of the metals associated with ancient cultures and was often used as a measure of value for other commodities. The Anglo-Saxons called the metal 'soilfur', whilst its symbol comes from 'argentum' the Latin word for silver. Silver is a widely used metal with a huge range of applications. It's also the most thermal and electrically conductive metal, and one of the 4 precious metals along with gold, platinum, and palladium. It's also the only metal capable of inflicting lasting injuries on werewolves!

Gold (Au)…
…is Anglo-Saxon but its symbol comes from its Latin name 'aurum', which appropriately means 'shining dawn'. We've been mining and using gold since at least 4600BC. Whilst most of the gold mined to date, historically and contemporarily, has been used to make jewellery, coins and bullion, it is also a very useful industrial metal. It's highly conductive of both heat and electricity (3rd highest in both behind silver and copper) but is more corrosion resistant than either of those 2 metals. In fact, gold is the most corrosion resistant metal known but its price and rarity means it's only used sparingly in this capacity. Until the last few years, it was also the most expensive but has now been overtaken by the even scarcer palladium. Along with silver, platinum and palladium, gold is one of the 4 precious metals, and one of the coinage metals alongside silver and copper.

Chromium (Cr)…
… produces colourful salts, which are responsible for its name, 'chroma' being Greek for 'colour'. Notably some of these salts are found in emeralds, rubies, and alexandrite; the salts are what give the gems their green and red colours. Chromium salts are also used in breathalyser kits – salts like potassium dichromate oxidise alcohol in the breath to produce acetic acid. The process changes the chemical structure, and thus the colour, of the salt ie unoxidised salts are red-orange but turn green after oxidation.

However, chromium is probably best known for its corrosion-resistant and 'polishable' characteristics, and for lending its name to a piece of software that bolts onto Google's flagship web browser Chrome.

Cobalt (Co) …
…comes from 'kobold', which is 'goblin' in German. It's an interesting name (with an interesting explanation) for the bluish-grey metal, well known and much loved for its ability to impart a deep blue hue to glass and ceramics. It seems that once upon a time, silver miners mistook an ore called smaltite, which has the chemical formula CoAs2, for silver ore. When they heated the ore to extract the 'silver', the process inadvertently created toxic arsenic fumes that undoubtedly led to some serious health issues for the miners.  Goblins of course are mythical creatures, usually with a grotesque appearance and often malicious in nature, that can cause all manner of woes and misfortunes to those unfortunate enough to encounter them…. Much like invisible fumes of arsenic in fact!

Copper (Cu)…
…in and around the Mediterranean during the Roman empire mostly came from Cyprus, the region's largest supplier of the valuable metal. In Latin, this copper 'ore from Cyprus' was called 'aes cyprium'. The phrase eventually morphed into the single word 'cuprum' from which copper gets its symbol. 'Cuprum' became 'coper' in ye olde English and in the mid to late 1500's turned into 'copper'. Copper is the oldest metal known to have been used by humans, predating both gold and silver. We've found copper artefacts dating back to around 9000BC, some 3000+ years older than the oldest known gold ones found in Bulgaria.

Iron (Fe)…
…is one of the metals that makes the world go round, or props it up at least. From living creatures to soaring manmade edifices, iron is an essential part of life. It's also an element with an interesting explanation for both its name and its symbol. The Anglo-Saxons called this strong ductile metal 'iren' and the name stuck, albeit with a vowel change in the middle. Fe is a derivative of 'ferrum', which is Latin for 'iron'. Humans have been using iron since at least 3500BC when we discovered we could extract it from meteorites. However, because it was hard to come by in pure form we mostly only used it for special occasions, like ceremonies. The invention of the smelting process that would allow the extraction of the metal from its ores, and thus turn it into a mass commodity, was still some 2000 years in the future at that time.

Mercury (Hg)…
…is a silvery coloured metal that is named after the Roman god of the same name, or perhaps it's the planet of the same name???? It really depends on what version of the story you read but either way there is a common thread between the two versions. Mercury (the god) has wide ranging talents. Amongst other things he is the god of commerce, financial gain, luck, thieves, travellers, eloquence et al. Significantly, he is also the 'quick moving' god of messages and communication, and this attribute led to his name being given to the rather unique metal, and a planet. Mercury (the metal) moves when liquid and for this reason is also known as 'quick silver'. The planet Mercury, as the fastest planet in our solar system, is likewise 'quick' moving. The metal's symbol comes from its original Latin name 'hydragyrum' which means 'liquid silver'.  Interestingly, Holden also produced a model they called the 'HG'.  Was it likewise meant to be 'quick'? 

Iridium (Ir)…
…has the unusual distinction of playing a definitive role in determining the events that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period. Geologists have found that the surface of the earth at that time contained 30 to 1000 times more iridium than the layers immediately above and below it. As iridium is naturally extremely rare throughout the earth's crust, this sudden increase in concentration must have had a cause. 

The most obvious explanation is that such an enrichment event likely happened when the Chicxulub impactor hit the earth some 66 million years ago. Asteroids do after all contain a lot of iridium! When this one exploded into a fiery inferno on impact all those millions of years ago, its iridium payload was released into the earth's atmosphere and, significantly, its oceans. Research shows that even normal levels of iridium dissolved in seawater take several to many thousands of years to sediment out and settle to the bottom. This process is reflected by the regular scarcity of the metal's dispersion in the earth's crust.

The excessive amounts deposited by the impactor however took a lot longer to settle out, perhaps as long as 100,000 years. This resulted in a considerably thicker layer of significantly iridium-enriched sediment that directly reflects the greater concentration of the metal in the world's oceans during that time.

As for the metal's name – that comes courtesy of its 'rainbow', or 'iris' in Latin, of colourful compounds.

Manganese (Mn)…
…with its 5 unpaired electrons is naturally paramagnetic but some manganese alloys and oxides are ferromagnetic. It's also quite reactive, rather brittle, and is commonly added to steel alloys to improve wear resistance and add strength. Manganese is also one of the essential trace elements needed by most living things, notably in the right balances with Iron, Copper, and Zinc. However, the metal's magnetic qualities are what contributed to its name. 'Magnes' is Latin for 'magnet'.

Molybdenum (Mo)…
…the metal with a hard to pronounce name due to the interesting combination of letters in the middle of it, gets said name courtesy of its 'lead like' appearance. In Greek, the word for 'lead' is 'molybdos'. Molybdenum has an extremely high melting point, making it a useful addition to alloys intended for high temperature applications (aircraft and engine parts, armour plating etc). It is also a very efficient nitrogen converter. Mammals produce enzymes containing molybdenum molecules in order to convert waste nitrogen to uric acid. Nodules on the roots of legume plants like clovers, beans, and lupins convert atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia in the soil. Ammonia is a component in many fertilisers, hence why these types of plants are often planted to naturally improve soil quality.

Nickel (Ni)…
… is a relatively abundant metal that was often mistaken for copper because it has a slight gold tinge. This characteristic gave rise to names like 'Old Nick's copper' and the German equivalent 'kupfernickel', all of which essentially mean 'false copper', 'copper of the devil' etc. The 'nickel' part of 'kupfernickel' and the association with 'Old Nick' stuck and became the metal's name.

Niobium (Nb)…
…is similar to tantalum, which explains its name. Niobe was Tantalus' daughter in Greek mythology. Tantalus of course gave his name to tantalum, and to several other words now in common use such as 'tantalise'.

Osmium (Os)…
…smells. That's why its name comes from 'osme', which is Greek for 'odour'. It's a very rare metal, rarer even than gold and is a Platinum Group Metal. Osmium is very dense (the densest metal yet known) and when exposed to oxygen as a powder, produces a smelly, toxic gas called osmium tetroxide. Most commercial osmium today is produced as a by-product of nickel refining.

Lead (Pb)…
…is an Anglo-Saxon word but the metal's seemingly unrelated symbol comes from 'plumbum', the Latin name for 'liquid silver'. Lead has also played a significant role in alchemy, a practice that eventually contributed to the modern science of chemistry. Notably, it was often involved in transmutation experiments trying to turn non-gold metals into gold. Lead also has the distinction of being mentioned in the Book of Exodus.

Palladium (Pd)…
… is one of 4 designated precious metals (the others are gold, silver, and platinum). It's now also the most expensive of those metals, leapfrogging over gold in recent times to take out the top position as demand continues to far outstrip supply.

As for its name - when astronomer Heinrich W. M. Olbers discovered a huge asteroid between Mars and Jupiter in 1802, he probably didn't know he'd also be responsible for the name of a metal identified that same year. The astronomers called the asteroid Pallas​ after the Greek God Triton's daughter of the same name. According to legend, Pallas and Zeus's daughter Athena were raised together by Triton. Unfortunately, Athena accidentally killed Pallas during a mock fight and out of regret for her actions, built a monument to Pallas that she called 'palladium'. Incidentally, Pallas was the second asteroid to be discovered, and the 3rd largest known to date in our solar system.

Platinum (Pt)…
…can be found nestled alongside gold in certain environments. This was how the Spanish first came across it in the 1500's during their gold hunting expeditions to the New World. They mostly considered it an unusable silver-like 'nuisance' metal and gave it the name 'platina', meaning 'little silver' in Spanish. It was probably meant to be derogatory. However, the ancient Egyptians and early South American cultures had been using platinum in their jewellery and other artefacts for many hundreds of years so they assigned it some value! Fast-forward to modern times and, ironically, platinum is now grouped alongside gold, silver and palladium as one of the 4 precious metals, and is literally worth its weight in gold. It's also one of the rarest metals on earth, rarer even than gold, and one of the very valuable Platinum Group Metals.

Tantalum (Ta)…
…gets its name from the very interesting Tantalus in Greek mythology. The gods punished Tantalus (for killing his son and serving him up to them at a feast) by sending him to the underworld where he stood in water surrounded by fruit trees. When he went to get a piece of fruit, the branches pulled back out of his reach. Likewise, when he went to drink the surrounding water, it receded so he couldn't reach it. Thus Tantalus spent the rest of his life with food and water 'tantalisingly' out of reach.

Titanium (Ti)…
…is very light, and very strong and hard, as were the 12 offspring of heaven (Uranus) and earth (Gaea), collectively referred to as the Titans in Greek mythology. For those interested in mythology, the Titans were followed by the better-known Olympians, which include Zeus, Poseidon, Hades et al. However, the Titans were the ones destined to grace this mortal earth when they were used to name the metal Titanium.

Tungsten (W)…
…AKA Wolfram, has the highest melting point of all pure metals, making it a valuable component in alloys that are subject to high temperatures. The dense, and thus heavy, metal also becomes very hard when mixed with certain other metals, and is corrosion resistant. These characteristics mean Tungsten has a wide range of industrial and commercial uses. As for its name – 'tung sten' is Swedish for 'heavy stone', whilst its alternative name 'wolfram' means 'wolf dirt' in German. It got the latter name after tin miners came across the 'greyish (wolf) coloured dirt' in tin deposits. Obviously, 'wolfram' is responsible for the metal's chemical symbol W.

Vanadium (V)…
…salts exhibit a range of beautiful bright colours and these are the reason the element was named after Vanadis, the Scandinavian goddess of beauty. The same goddess is known as Freya in Norse mythology. When combined with iron in alloys, the resulting product ferrovanadium is strong, light, and shock and corrosion resistant, making it ideal for surgical instruments, high speed tools, gears and other high use applications. It's also added to alloys with titanium and aluminium to produce steel for airframes and jet engines.

Zinc (Zn)…
…is the English spelling of its German name 'zink' but that word possibly came from 'sing', which is 'stone' in Persian. Zinc has a long association with humans, having been used for thousands of years in a range of applications, notably medical, and also for producing brass. It is in fact the 4th most used metal, the others being iron, aluminium and copper. Zinc is also an essential nutrient, vital for many important functions including immune system health, wound healing, carbohydrate metabolism, cellular mitosis and growth, and for taste and smell.

Zirconium (Zr)…
… is an interesting name for this naturally silvery grey metal because it comes from 'zargun', which in Persian means 'gold coloured' or 'gold-hued'. However, if you consider the colour of zircon (zirconium silicate) gemstones, it begins to make sense. Zircons are ancient and highly prized gemstones that come in a range of colours, including spectacular golds and yellows.
A kobold
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