Trivial name

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The element mercury was named after the Roman god (painting by Hendrik Goltzius). Mercury by Hendrick Goltzius.jpg
The element mercury was named after the Roman god (painting by Hendrik Goltzius).

In chemistry, a trivial name is a nonsystematic name for a chemical substance. That is, the name is not recognized according to the rules of any formal system of chemical nomenclature such as IUPAC inorganic or IUPAC organic nomenclature. A trivial name is not a formal name and is usually a common name.


Generally, trivial names are not useful in describing the essential properties of the thing being named. Properties such as the molecular structure of a chemical compound are not indicated. And, in some cases, trivial names can be ambiguous or will carry different meanings in different industries or in different geographic regions (for example, a trivial name such as white metal can mean various things). Trivial names are simpler. As a result, a limited number of trivial chemical names are retained names, an accepted part of the nomenclature.

Trivial names often arise in the common language; they may come from historic usages in, for example, alchemy. Many trivial names pre-date the institution of formal naming conventions. Names can be based on a property of the chemical, including appearance (color, taste or smell), consistency, and crystal structure; a place where it was found or where the discoverer comes from; the name of a scientist; a mythological figure; an astronomical body; the shape of the molecule; and even fictional figures. All elements that have been isolated have trivial names.


In scientific documents, international treaties, patents and legal definitions, names for chemicals are needed that identify them unambiguously. This need is satisfied by systematic names. One such system, established by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), was established in 1950. Other systems have been developed by the American Chemical Society, the International Organization for Standardization, and the World Health Organization. However, chemists still use many names that are not systematic because they are traditional or because they are more convenient than the systematic names. These are called trivial names. The word "trivial", often used in a pejorative sense, was intended to mean "commonplace". [1]

In addition to trivial names, chemists have constructed semi-trivial names by appending a standard symbol to a trivial stem. [2] Some trivial and semi-trivial names are so widely used that they have been officially adopted by IUPAC; these are known as retained names .


Traditional names of elements are trivial, some originating in alchemy. IUPAC has accepted these names, but has also defined systematic names of elements that have not yet been prepared. It has adopted a procedure by which the scientists who are credited with preparing an element can propose a new name. Once the IUPAC has accepted such a (trivial) name, it replaces the systematic name. [1]


A plaque commemorating a mine in Ytterby where ore was obtained from which four new elements were isolated. ASM ytterbymine.jpg
A plaque commemorating a mine in Ytterby where ore was obtained from which four new elements were isolated.
Curium was named after Pierre and Marie Curie. Pierre Curie et Marie Sklodowska Curie 1895.jpg
Curium was named after Pierre and Marie Curie.

Nine elements were known by the Middle Ages: gold, silver, tin, mercury, copper, lead, iron, sulfur, and carbon. [3] Mercury was named after the planet, but its symbol was derived from the Latin hydrargyrum, which itself comes from the greek υδράργυρος, meaning liquid silver; mercury is also known as quicksilver in English. [1] The symbols for the other eight are derived from their Latin names. [3]

Systematic nomenclature began after Louis-Bernard Guyton de Morveau stated the need for “a constant method of denomination, which helps the intelligence and relieves the memory”. [4] The resulting system was popularized by Antoine Lavoisier's publication of Méthode de nomenclature chimique (Method of Chemical Nomenclature) in 1787. Lavoisier proposed that elements be named after their properties. For the next 125 years, most chemists followed this suggestion, using Greek and Latin roots to compose the names; for example, hydrogen ("water-producing"), oxygen ("acid-producing"), nitrogen ("soda-producing"), bromine ("stink"), and argon were based on Greek roots, while the names of iodine and chlorine were derived from the Greek words for their characteristic colors. Indium, rubidium, and thallium were similarly named for the colors of particular lines in their emission spectra. Iridium, which forms compounds of many different colors, takes its name from iris, the Latin for "rainbow". [3] The noble gases have all been named for their origin or properties. Helium comes from the Greek helios, meaning "Sun" because it was first detected as a line in the spectrum of the Sun (it is not known why the suffix -ium, which is used for metals, was chosen). [5] The other noble gases are neon ("new"), argon ("slow, lazy"), krypton ("hidden"), xenon ("stranger"), and radon ("from radium"). [6]

Many more elements have been given names that have little or nothing to do with their properties. Elements have been named for celestial bodies (helium, selenium, tellurium, for the Sun, Moon, and Earth; cerium and palladium for Ceres and Pallas, two asteroids). They have been named for mythological figures, including Titans in general (titanium) and Prometheus in particular (promethium); Roman and Greek gods (uranium, neptunium, and plutonium) and their descendants (tantalum for Tantalus, a son of Zeus, and niobium for Niobe, a daughter of Tantalus); and Norse deities (vanadium for the goddess Vanadis and thorium for the god Thor). [6]

Some elements were named for aspects of the history of their discovery. In particular, technetium and promethium were so named because the first samples detected were artificially synthesised; neither of the two has any isotope sufficiently stable to occur in nature on Earth in significant quantities. The connection to the Titan Prometheus was that he had been fabled to have stolen fire from the gods for mankind.

Discoverers of some elements named them after their home country or city. Marie Curie named polonium after Poland; ruthenium, gallium, germanium, and lutetium were based on the Latin names for Russia, France, Germany, and Paris. Other elements are named after the place where they were discovered. Four elements—terbium, erbium, ytterbium, and yttrium—were named after the Swedish village Ytterby, where ores containing them were extracted. [3] Other elements named after places are magnesium (after Magnesia), strontium, scandium, europium, thulium (after an old Roman name for an unidentified northern region), holmium, copper (derived from Cyprus, where it was mined in the Roman era), hafnium, rhenium, americium, berkelium, californium, and darmstadtium. [6]

For the elements up to 92 (uranium), naming elements after people was discouraged. The two exceptions are indirect, the elements being named after minerals that were themselves named after people. These were gadolinium (found in gadolinite, named after the Finnish chemist Johan Gadolin) and samarium (the mineral samarskite was named after a Russian mining engineer, Vasili Samarsky-Bykhovets). Among the transuranium elements, this restriction was relaxed; there followed curium (after the Curies), einsteinium (Albert Einstein), fermium (Enrico Fermi), mendelevium (Dmitri Mendeleev), nobelium (Alfred Nobel) and lawrencium (Ernest Lawrence). [6] [7] :320

Relation to IUPAC standards

IUPAC has established international standards for naming elements. The first scientist or laboratory to isolate an element has the right to propose a name; after a review process, a final decision is made by the IUPAC Council. In keeping with tradition, names can be based on a mythological concept or character, astronomical object, mineral, place, property of the element or scientist. [4] For those elements that have not yet been discovered, IUPAC has established a systematic name system. The names combine syllables that represent the digits of the atomic number, followed by "-ium". For example, "unununium" is element 111 ("un" being the syllable for 1). [8] However, once the element has been found, the systematic name is replaced by a trivial one, in this case roentgenium. [1]

The IUPAC names for elements are intended for use in the official languages. At the time of the first edition of the IUPAC Red Book (which contains the rules for inorganic compounds), those languages were English and French; now English is the sole official language. [9] However, other languages still have their own names for elements. The chemical symbol for tungsten, W, is based on the German name Wolfram, which is found in wolframite and comes from the German for "wolf's foam", how the mineral was known to Saxon miners. The name tungsten means "heavy stone", a description of scheelite, another mineral in which tungsten is found. [10] Russian names for hydrogen, oxygen and carbon are vodorod, kislorod and uglerod (generating water, acid and coal respectively). The German names for hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen are Wasserstoff (water substance), Sauerstoff (acid substance), and Stickstoff (smothering substance). The corresponding Chinese names are qīngqì (light gas), yǎngqì (nourishing gas), and dànqì (diluting gas). A method for translating chemical names into Chinese was developed by John Fryer and Xu Shou in 1871. Where traditional names were well established, they kept them; otherwise, a single character was created. [N 1]

Inorganic chemistry

Red hematite-rich sample from a banded iron formation in Wyoming. Hematite-rich BIF ventifact.jpg
Red hematite-rich sample from a banded iron formation in Wyoming.

Early terminology for compound chemicals followed similar rules to the naming of elements. The names could be based on the appearance of the substance, including all five senses. In addition, chemicals were named after the consistency, crystalline form, a person or place, its putative medical properties or method of preparation. [12] :68

Salt (sodium chloride) is soluble and is used to enhance the taste of food. Substances with similar properties came to be known as salts, in particular Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate, found in a bitter saline spring in the English town of Epsom). Ammonium (with the little-used formal name nitrogen trihydride) was first extracted from sal ammoniac, meaning "salt of Amun". Ancient Romans noticed crystals of it in Egyptian temples devoted to the god Amun; the crystals had condensed from the smoke of burning camel dung. [13] Lead acetate was called sugar of lead. [12] :70,77–78 However, other names like sugar of lead (lead(II) acetate), butter of antimony (antimony trichloride), oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid), and cream of tartar (potassium bitartrate) borrowed their language from the kitchen. [12] :65–66 Many more names were based on color; for example, hematite, orpiment, and verdigris come from words meaning "blood-like stone", "gold pigment", and "green of Greece". [12] :70

Some names are based on their use. Lime is a general name for materials combining calcium with carbonates, oxides or hydroxides; the name comes from a root "sticking or adhering"; its earliest use was as mortar for construction. [14]

Water has several systematic names, including oxidane (the IUPAC name), hydrogen oxide, and dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO). The latter was the basis of the dihydrogen monoxide hoax, a document that was circulated warning readers of the dangers of the chemical (for example, it is fatal if inhaled). [15] [16]

Organic chemistry

In organic chemistry, some trivial names derive from a notable property of the thing being named. For instance, lecithin, the common name for phosphatidylcholine, was originally isolated from egg yolk. The word is coined from the Greek λέκιθος (lékithos) for yolk. [17] [18]

Many trivial names continue to be used because their sanctioned equivalents are considered too cumbersome for everyday use. For example, "tartaric acid", a compound found in wine, has a systematic name of 2,3-dihydroxybutanedioic acid. The pigment β-Carotene has an IUPAC name of 1,3,3-trimethyl-2-[(1E,3E,5E,7E,9E,11E,13E,15E,17E)-3,7,12,16-tetramethyl-18-(2,6,6-trimethylcyclohexen-1-yl)octadeca-1,3,5,7,9,11,13,15,17-nonaenyl]cyclohexene. [19] However, the trivial name can be potentially confusing. Based on its name, one might come to the conclusion that the molecule theobromine contains one or more bromine atoms. In reality it is an alkaloid similar in structure to caffeine.


Several organic molecules have semitrivial names where the suffixes -ane (for an alkane) or -ene (for an alkene) are added to a name based on the shape of the molecule. [7] :xi Some are pictured below. Other examples include barrelene (shaped like a barrel), [7] :58 fenestrane (having a window-pane motif), [7] :55 ladderane (a ladder shape), olympiadane (having a shape with the same topology as the Olympic rings) and quadratic acid (also known as squaric acid).

Based on fiction

The antibiotic rudolphomycin is named after the character Rodolfo from the opera La Boheme. Rodolfo from La Boheme (1896).jpg
The antibiotic rudolphomycin is named after the character Rodolfo from the opera La Bohème .

The bohemic acid complex is a mixture of chemicals obtained through fermentation of a species of actinobacteria. In 1977 the components were isolated and have been found useful as antitumor agents and anthracycline antibiotics. The authors named the complex (and one of its components, bohemamine) after the opera La bohème by Puccini, and the remaining components were named after characters in the opera: alcindoromycin (Alcindoro), collinemycin (Colline), marcellomycin (Marcello), mimimycin (Mimi), musettamycin (Musetta), rudolphomycin (Rodolfo) and schaunardimycin (Schaunard). [7] :64 [20] However, the relationships between the characters do not correctly reflect the chemical relationships. [21]

A research lab at Lepetit Pharmaceuticals, led by Piero Sensi, was fond of coining nicknames for chemicals that they discovered, later converting them to a form more acceptable for publication. The antibiotic rifampicin was named after a French movie, Rififi , about a jewel heist. They nicknamed another antibiotic "Mata Hari" before changing the name to matamycin . [21]

See also

Related Research Articles

Chemistry Scientific discipline

Chemistry is the scientific study of the properties and behavior of matter. It is a natural science that covers the elements that make up matter to the compounds composed of atoms, molecules and ions: their composition, structure, properties, behavior and the changes they undergo during a reaction with other substances.

A chemical formula is a way of presenting information about the chemical proportions of atoms that constitute a particular chemical compound or molecule, using chemical element symbols, numbers, and sometimes also other symbols, such as parentheses, dashes, brackets, commas and plus (+) and minus (−) signs. These are limited to a single typographic line of symbols, which may include subscripts and superscripts. A chemical formula is not a chemical name, and it contains no words. Although a chemical formula may imply certain simple chemical structures, it is not the same as a full chemical structural formula. Chemical formulae can fully specify the structure of only the simplest of molecules and chemical substances, and are generally more limited in power than chemical names and structural formulae.

Functional group Set of atoms in a molecule which augment its chemical and/or physical properties

In organic chemistry, a functional group is a substituent or moiety in a molecule that causes the molecule's characteristic chemical reactions. The same functional group will undergo the same or similar chemical reactions regardless of the rest of the molecule's composition. This enables systematic prediction of chemical reactions and behavior of chemical compounds and the design of chemical synthesis. The reactivity of a functional group can be modified by other functional groups nearby. Functional group interconversion can be used in retrosynthetic analysis to plan organic synthesis.

Organic compound Chemical compound with carbon-hydrogen bonds

In chemistry, organic compounds are generally any chemical compounds that contain carbon-hydrogen bonds. Due to carbon's ability to catenate, millions of organic compounds are known. The study of the properties, reactions, and syntheses of organic compounds comprise the discipline known as organic chemistry. For historical reasons, a few classes of carbon-containing compounds, along with a few other exceptions, are not classified as organic compounds and are considered inorganic. Other than those just named, little consensus exists among chemists on precisely which carbon-containing compounds are excluded, making any rigorous definition of an organic compound elusive.

Organic chemistry Subdiscipline of chemistry, with especial focus on carbon compounds

Organic chemistry is a branch of chemistry that studies the structure, properties and reactions of organic compounds, which contain carbon-carbon covalent bonds. Study of structure determines their structural formula. Study of properties includes physical and chemical properties, and evaluation of chemical reactivity to understand their behavior. The study of organic reactions includes the chemical synthesis of natural products, drugs, and polymers, and study of individual organic molecules in the laboratory and via theoretical study.

Chemical symbol Abbreviations used in chemistry

Chemical symbols are the abbreviations used in chemistry for chemical elements, functional groups and chemical compounds. Element symbols for chemical elements normally consist of one or two letters from the Latin alphabet and are written with the first letter capitalised. In Chinese, each chemical element has a dedicated character, usually created for the purpose. However, Latin symbols are also used, especially in formulas.

A systematic element name is the temporary name assigned to an unknown or recently synthesized chemical element. A systematic symbol is also derived from this name.

A period 6 element is one of the chemical elements in the sixth row (or period) of the periodic table of the elements, including the lanthanides. The periodic table is laid out in rows to illustrate recurring (periodic) trends in the chemical behaviour of the elements as their atomic number increases: a new row is begun when chemical behaviour begins to repeat, meaning that elements with similar behaviour fall into the same vertical columns. The sixth period contains 32 elements, tied for the most with period 7, beginning with caesium and ending with radon. Lead is currently the last stable element; all subsequent elements are radioactive. For bismuth, however, its only primordial isotope, 209Bi, has a half-life of more than 1019 years, over a billion times longer than the current age of the universe. As a rule, period 6 elements fill their 6s shells first, then their 4f, 5d, and 6p shells, in that order; however, there are exceptions, such as gold.

A systematic name is a name given in a systematic way to one unique group, organism, object or chemical substance, out of a specific population or collection. Systematic names are usually part of a nomenclature.

In chemical nomenclature, the IUPAC nomenclature of organic chemistry is a method of naming organic chemical compounds as recommended by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). It is published in the Nomenclature of Organic Chemistry. Ideally, every possible organic compound should have a name from which an unambiguous structural formula can be created. There is also an IUPAC nomenclature of inorganic chemistry.

Dihydrogen monoxide parody Parody where water is presented by an uncommon name

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Chirality (chemistry) Geometric property of some molecules and ions

In chemistry, a molecule or ion is called chiral if it cannot be superposed on its mirror image by any combination of rotations, translations, and some conformational changes. This geometric property is called chirality. The terms are derived from Ancient Greek χείρ (cheir) 'hand'; which is the canonical example of an object with this property.

A chemical nomenclature is a set of rules to generate systematic names for chemical compounds. The nomenclature used most frequently worldwide is the one created and developed by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC).

In chemical nomenclature, the IUPAC nomenclature of inorganic chemistry is a systematic method of naming inorganic chemical compounds, as recommended by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). It is published in Nomenclature of Inorganic Chemistry. Ideally, every inorganic compound should have a name from which an unambiguous formula can be determined. There is also an IUPAC nomenclature of organic chemistry.

An oxyacid, oxoacid, or ternary acid is an acid that contains oxygen. Specifically, it is a compound that contains hydrogen, oxygen, and at least one other element, with at least one hydrogen atom bonded to oxygen that can dissociate to produce the H+ cation and the anion of the acid.

Chemical substance Matter of constant composition defined by its constituting chemical species (molecules, atoms, ions)

A chemical substance is a form of matter having constant chemical composition and characteristic properties. Some references add that chemical substance cannot be separated into its constituent elements by physical separation methods, i.e., without breaking chemical bonds. Chemical substances can be simple substances, chemical compounds, or alloys. Chemical elements may or may not be included in the definition, depending on expert viewpoint.

In chemical nomenclature, a preferred IUPAC name (PIN) is a unique name, assigned to a chemical substance and preferred among the possible names generated by IUPAC nomenclature. The "preferred IUPAC nomenclature" provides a set of rules for choosing between multiple possibilities in situations where it is important to decide on a unique name. It is intended for use in legal and regulatory situations.

In chemistry, a retained name is a name for a chemical compound that is recommended for use by a system of chemical nomenclature, but that is not fully systematic. Retained names are often used for the most fundamental parts of a nomenclature system: almost all the chemical elements have retained names rather than being named systematically, as do the first four alkanes, benzene and most simple heterocyclic compounds. Water and ammonia are other examples of retained names.

A descriptor is in chemical nomenclature a prefix placed before the systematic substance name, which describes the configuration or the stereochemistry of the molecule. Some listed descriptors are only of historical interest and should not be used in publications anymore as they do not correspond with the modern recommendations of the IUPAC. Stereodescriptors are often used in combination with locants to clearly identify a chemical structure unambiguously.


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  1. The created character consists of a radical – which, for an element, is "metal" or "air" (gas) or "water" (liquid) or "stone" (metalloid) – and a component for the sound from a Western name of the element. [11] For details, see Chemical elements in East Asian languages#Chinese.

Further reading