The RIKEN institute in Kobe (home of the Kei-computer) has been credited with the discovery of the 113th element, and now has the right to propose a name for it, taking its rightful place in the periodic table between elements 112 (copernicium) and 114 (flerovium) . The name “Japonium” (symbol: Jp) has been suggested, to commemorate its country of discovery.
On a visit to the Science museum in Osaka last year, my attention was grabbed by a “Periodic Table Wall”, where the various slots were occupied by little vials containing samples of each element.
Periodic Table Wall: いろいろな元素 means “various elements”
Looking at the names of the elements in Japanese, I became curious as to why, while many are simply the familiar international name written in katakana (for example リチウム richium—lithium) or a variation thereof (セレン seren—selenium), the names of several of the elements were written in kanji. I wondered what is special about these particular elements, that they have their own kanji.
It seems they fall into a number of categories, depending mainly on when the elements were discovered. In the case of elements known to the ancients, native words, or very old (Tang-dynasty) Chinese loan-words, are used:
- 鉄 tetsu: iron
- 金 kin: gold
- 銀 gin: silver
- 銅 dou: copper
- 鉛 en: lead
- 錫 suzu: tin
- 燐 rin: phosphorus (normally written in katakana as リン; among the ingredients listed on a can of coca-cola you will find リン酸 rin-san—phosphoric acid)
- 硫黄 iou: sulphur
- 水銀 suigin: mercury (literally “water-silver”; an intriguing parallel to the meaning of Latin hydrargyrum, but long-predating European contact)
A couple of oddballs (usually written in katakana as the kanji are so uncommon) combine the old name of the substance with the character 素 so meaning “element”:
- 硼素 houso: boron (usually written in katakana as ホウ素)
- 硅素 or 珪素 keiso: silicon (usually written in katakana as ケイ素)
- 砒素 hiso: arsenic (usually written in katakana as ヒ素)
The names of some of the elements are 18th-century Japanese coinages:
- 亜鉛 aen: zinc (meaning something like “lesser lead”)
- 蒼鉛 souen: bismuth (“blue-green lead”); nowadays, however, this element is known by its international name as ビスマス bisumasu.
News of the discovery in 18th-century Europe of new elements such as oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen came to Japan through German (or Dutch); the Japanese names are exact calques of the German names:
- 水素 suiso: hydrogen (“water element”, from German Wasserstoff)
- 炭素 tanso: carbon (“coal element”, from German Kohlenstoff)
- 窒素 chisso: nitrogen (“choking element”, from German Stickstoff)
- 酸素 sanso: oxygen (“acid element”, from German Sauerstoff)
- 白金 hakkin: platinum (“white gold”, from Dutch wit goud)
This pattern was extended to some native coinages in the early 18th century:
- 塩素 enso: chlorine means “salt element”
- 臭素 shuuso: bromine means “smelly element”
The names of fluorine and iodine are phonetic borrowings based on the initial sound of the German names, combined with the character 素 so meaning “element”:
- 弗素 fusso: fluorine (usually written in katakana as フッ素)
- 沃素 youso: iodine (usually written in katakana as ヨウ素)
After around 1900, however, everything settled down and all the more recently-discovered elements just use the international name in Japanese, so there is no special Japanese name or kanji for ネオン neon, サマリウム samarium or ジスプロシウム dysprosium. How boring!