水素 suiso—hydrogen

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.

element 113
Element 113: Jp?

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

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.
Bi-crystal
A bismuth crystal

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!

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