In ancient Greece, it was believed that there were four elements – earth, air, fire, and water – that made up all matter in the world. This classification evolved as a result of these being the ‘elements’ which people saw on a daily basis – they didn’t realize that they breathed oxygen, because they didn’t see oxygen. Plato associated each element with a regular solid; earth was supposed to be made from cubes, air from octahedrons, fire with tetrahedrons, and water with icosahedrons. As for dodecahedrons, “the god used [them] for arranging the constellations on the whole heaven.” Who knows what he meant by that?
On a side note, I wonder how they could look at their food and say “This must be made up of 20% air, 70% water and 10% fire.”
Several elements were known to ancient man, such as copper, gold and silver. However, cobalt was the first discovered element that was previously unknown. Following its discovery in 1735, many other elements were discovered; as many as forty in the next hundred years. The method of naming these elements is as interesting as the elements themselves. Take cobalt as an example – German miners had come across ores of cobalt, which often gave off poisonous fumes containing arsenic, and so it came to be known as the ‘goblin ore’. ‘Goblin’ in German is kobold. Nickel, the next discovered element, also has a German name – its ore resembled that of copper, yet miners were unable to extract any copper from it. They called it ‘devil’s copper’, or kupfernickel.
A few more elements:
Oxygen – its name comes from the Greek words for ‘sharp’ (referring to the sharp taste of acids) and ‘producer’. At the time of naming oxygen, people thought it was a component in all acids.
Yttrium, ytterbium, terbium, erbium – all of these elements were named after the Swedish village of Ytterby, as all four of them were discovered in the village’s mine. The name means ‘outer village’.
Tungsten – its name is derived from the Swedish words ‘tung sten’, meaning ‘heavy stone’, and its unusual chemical symbol from the mineral wolframite, meaning ‘the devourer of tin’, as it interfered with the smelting of tin.
Perhaps the most interesting name origin is that of xenon. Its name in Greek means ‘stranger’, which implies that it doesn’t combine with anything (like most of the noble gases), but it is the only noble gas to be part of a compound, xenon tetrafluoride (XeF4).
Recently, many of the elements discovered have been named after famous scientists (for example, einsteinium, mendelevium and rutherfordium). So what are you waiting for? Go get an element named after yourself!