What’s in a Name? You Have No Idea

Dear Creative People Who Must Make Up Names of Chemicals, please stop doing it wrong.

There are naming conventions to these sorts of things, and IUPAC, the International Union of Physical and Applied Chemists, won’t let you name an element Chemical X. Element names end in -ium, so you’d better try, say, Elementium first. Not familiar with the element Chemical X? There’s an entire Periodic Table of Imaginary Elements.

And don’t start with the “But gold, silver and mercury…” because those aren’t their real names. Remember, most of the elements were originally found by alchemists, who spoke and worked in Latin. Gold, silver and mercury’s real names, Aurum, argentium, and hydragyrum (ever wonder why their symbols are Au, Ag and Hg?) conform to the convention.

Lead (Pb) is plumbium. Carbon (C) is carboneum. Hydrogen, mother of all elements, is hydrogenium in Latin. Got it? See, I knew you simply needed to know the rule. You’re very bright people.

From the venerable kryptonite (which is named like and appears as a mineral but is always referred to as an element), to the simply ridiculous “unobtainium” (another name that would cause IUPAC to collectively sneer), to Clive Cussler’s strangely self-contradictory “anasazium” (it’s an element! it’s a compound! it’s a catalyst! it’s inert! it’s explosive! — wait, what?), made-up chemicals apparently don’t need to follow the physical laws or naming conventions of this universe.

This is why supposedly respectable journalists can get away with referring to working aerospace scientists and engineers as “eggheads” on network television, which a reporter for CBS did a couple of days ago when referring to the asteroid that passed between Earth and Luna.

Those would be the same “eggheads” you would be begging to save you if the asteroid were a couple of hundred thousand miles closer to the planet, wouldn’t they, Mr. reporter? Perhaps a bit of courtesy and respect for someone else’s profession might be in order.

Scientific names aren’t trademark-able marketing tools, like the drug names on TV commercials. They mean something. And when you make up crap names, you insult the people who have to deal with the fallout of sealing Han Solo in the “element” carbonite (another mineral name — why can’t they call it a mineral? it’s the same number of syllables).

You know those long ingredient names on the back of shampoo bottles? If you understand the rules, you can draw the molecule from the name, although you might have difficulty reading it aloud. But you’re not supposed to read it aloud, you’re supposed to be able to visualize the molecule and what it does. That’s the point of a descriptive name.

For example, Claritin ™, generically known as Loratidine(tm), is really ethyl 4-(8-chloro-5,6-dihydro-11H-benzo[5,6]cyclohepta[1,2-b]pyridin-11-ylidene)-1-piperidinecarboxylate. Who knew it had that many rings in it? Well, anyone who passed the first semester of organic chemistry, but they were all studying to be doctors and scientists — you know, eggheads — except for that one, very odd, art major…but I digress.

One more thing…don’t invent an element when you really need a molecule. How often do you see an element all by itself without a lot of man-made intervention? Here’s a hint: not often, and they tend to be considered quite valuable. So when you’re thinking about making up an element and ending it with “-ite” or “-ex” or “-ia” — just call it a mineral. Or a compound. Or even a molecule; I’d be okay with molecule if I squinted and gritted my teeth.

1 comment so far

  1. Joe on

    I can see you point. As a person in the Information Technology field, I cringe at any Hollywood portrayal of “computer hacking”. But I just remind myself that it’s entertainment. After all, it is fantasy. Besides “real” computer activities would bore most people to sleep, included people in my field. 🙂

    But would you prefer authors write about known elements and make up crazy properties and outlandish claims?

    It is science-fiction and all in good fun. I’d prefer authors make up fake elements to write fantasies about instead of adding claims to real science.

    If it gets readers to question fantasy and look things up, that would be good too…

    Except when the authors seriously get it wrong!


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