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daofeishi

Etymology of characters related to chemistry

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daofeishi

I have noticed that Chinese has a lot of single characters that are used for chemical substances and elementst. For example, there is 醇 for alcohols (甲醇 methanol,乙醇 ethanol,丙醇 propanol,...) and 酶 for enzymes (乳糖酶 lactase, 转移酶 transferase,...) Both 醇 and 酶 are characters used in non-chemical contexts, so this is not that puzzling per se. However, often the characters have no other meaning than the chemical one, which seems to indicate that the characters have not been “borrowed” from other words to fit the new context. This goes e.g. for many of the elements of the periodic table, like 氢 (hydrogen), 硼 (boron) and 铹 (lawrencium). What I think is really interesting about all of these chemical characters is how elementary chemical properties are represented in them: radon (氡) is indeed a gas at room temperature, represented by the 气 radical; palladium 钯 is a metal, represented by the 钅radical. Also, the phonetic component of the character is often close in pronunciation to the Latin name of the element.

It is obvious that the characters have been chosen intelligently. The thing is, since chemistry is a fairly modern branch of human knowledge that postdates the seal script by several hundred years, the characters for these chemical elements and compounds must have been assigned fairly recently. I have heard from several sources that no new characters have been invented in modern times, so where do these characters come from, i.e. what is their etymology? Have they been chosen among old characters that were not used before? Have they actually been invented consciously? By who?

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aristotle1990

See the Wikipedia article.

Chinese, characters for the elements are the last officially created and recognized characters in the Chinese writing system.

[...]

Most elements...remained unknown to the Chinese until they were isolated during the Industrial Age. These new elements therefore required new characters, which were invented using the phono-semantic principle. Each character consists of two parts, to signify the meaning and to hint at the sound.

[...]

A minority of the "new characters" are not actually new inventions, or rather, they happen to coincide with archaic characters, whose original meanings have long been lost to most people. For example, (protactinium), (beryllium) and (chromium) are obscure characters meaning "raw iron," "needle," and "hook," respectively.

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daofeishi

Interesting. I didn't even think there would be a Wikipedia article on this after I 百度ed for a while without finding anything relevant. The only problem is, there are no real references in that article, and a few unanswered questions, like, who has been responsible for inventing those characters?

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aristotle1990

Did some more research, found this:

文章主要目的是研究惰性气体元素中文名词氦、氖、氩、氪、氙、氡的形成.在19世纪末,这些元素名词是以意译方式出现,如(氩)与曦(氦).在 1907年<化学语汇>第一次提出氩、氦、氪等音译名词后,惰性气体元素中文译名便开始往音译名词上发展.而氖字,可能最早出现于1908 年.氙字是首次出现在1933年出版的<化学命名原则>,然而在此前一年在化学讨论会所通过的是.至于氡字,是在1937年教育部所举行的化 学名词审查会议中所决定的.

So apparently it was the Ministry of Education (and initially Western missionaries).

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ma3zi1

Don't forget 苯 for benzene, and 酚 for phenol! :P

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Lugubert

In addition to the gas and metal radicals, don't forget the

石 for non-metals, like 硫 liú for sulphur.

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xiaocai
Don't forget 苯 for benzene, and 酚 for phenol!

I think they are talking about characters for elements. Organic compounds have a different naming system.

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ma3zi1
I have noticed that Chinese has a lot of single characters that are used for chemical substances and elements. For example, there is 醇 for alcohols and 酶 for enzymes.
It would appear we are talking about both chemical substances and periodical table elements.
However, often the characters have no other meaning than the chemical one, which seems to indicate that the characters have not been “borrowed” from other words to fit the new context
As far I am can tell, this is true of 苯 and 酚. They have no other meanings except "benzene" and "phenol" respectively.
Organic compounds have a different naming system
I believe you are talking about this:
甲醇 methanol,乙醇 ethanol,丙醇 propanol,...
Yes, I am familiar with this system, for example: 鄰苯二酚 (catechol) and 對苯二酚 (hyrdoquinone). I actually like it a lot more than the IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) system. :mrgreen:

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xiaocai

Hmm, alright. Then we are actually talking about both then. However I thought the main focus was element naming here... :P

But the corresponding names for catechol and hydroquinone are 儿茶酚 and 氢醌 in Chinese. There are actually a Chinese IUPAC names for them (see here for 中文IUPAC命名法) as well and I think 鄰苯二酚 and 對苯二酚 are the "short forms" of them. :)

Back to the topic. Naming for new chemicals now is mainly under regulation of 全国科学技术名词审定委员会. Any proposed new name will be assessed by the committee members to decide whether the name will be recommended as the scientific name for the particular chemical.

And some general trends (but by no mean rules) in forming new characters for organic compounds which I can still remember:

火字旁: hydrocarbons, e.g. 烷, 烯;

酉字旁: hydroxyl containing groups, e.g. 醇, 酚;

肉字旁: nitrogen containing (mostly aromatic) groups, e.g. 胺, 胩;

草字头: aromatic groups, e.g. 茚, 蒽;

口字旁: pure phonetic adaption of heterocyclic groups, e.g. 吡啶, 哌嗪;

and not really under the same category, but I can't just ignore my favourite: .

And there are many more which I can not think of at the moment but you can surely find the reference somewhere.

BTW, I'm not very sure about the system used in HK and Taiwan.

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ma3zi1

Now I now a lot more about chemical naming conventions, 奈斯! :P

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