The Eleven Oddball Symbols on the Periodic Table of the Elements

periodic table oddballs

Most symbols for elements on the periodic table are easy to learn, such as those for carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen:  C, O, and N. There are eleven “oddballs,” though, because their symbols originated in other languages (Latin, mostly), and do not match their English names. Here’s a list of them, by atomic number, with an explanation for each.

11. Na stands for sodium because this element used to be called natrium.

19. K stands for potassium, for this element’s name used to be kalium.

26. Fe stands for iron because this element was formerly named ferrum.

29. Cu stands for copper because it used to be called cuprum.

47. Ag’s (silver’s) old name was argentum.

50. Sn’s (tin’s) name used to be stannum.

51. Antimony’s symbol, Sb, came from its former name, stibium.

74. Tungsten, with the symbol W, was once called wolfram. In some parts of the world, it still goes by that name, in fact.

79. Gold (Au) was called aurum in past centuries.

80. Mercury’s (Hg’s) old name is impossible (for me, anyway) to say five times, quickly:  hydrargyrum.

82. Lead (Pb) was once called plumbum because plumbers used it to weight the lower end of plumb-lines.

I think learning things is easier, with longer retention, if one knows the reasons behind the facts, rather than simply attempting rote memorization.

10 thoughts on “The Eleven Oddball Symbols on the Periodic Table of the Elements

  1. 79 gold is oro in Spanish
    82 lead – the latin name for lead is plumbum. Plumbers are called plumbers because they used to work with lead pipes and the plumb line has a lead (plumbum) weight at the bottom.
    I lost interest in Chemistry when it became apparent that the periodic table did not show the regularity that I hoped it would.

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  2. I am reasonably sure that the name plumbum predates people being called plumbers and things like plumb lines and that their names are due to the use of plumbum

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