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Chemical Symbol: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:30 What is a Chemical Symbol?
  • 1:01 Origin of Chemical Symbols
  • 3:55 Use of Chemical Symbols
  • 4:34 Examples of Chemical Symbols
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Cynthia Shonberg

Cynthia has taught high school science courses for many years and has a Master of Science degree and a Master of Arts in Teaching.

In this lesson, you will learn that a chemical symbol is a short-hand way to represent an element and each element on the periodic table has a unique chemical symbol. You'll become familiar with identifying some common elements by their chemical symbol.

What is a Chemical Symbol?

Think of all the symbols and shorthand ways we represent things in our daily lives. A common example of a symbol that you use every day is an emoticon on your cell phone. You use a smiley face to indicate that you are pleased about something. You don't text 'I'm pleased about that'; instead, you just insert a smiley face. You may also use a shorthand version of your name, a nickname, like Bill instead of using the longer version of your name, William.

Chemical symbols are used in much the same way. A chemical symbol is a shorthand method of representing an element. Instead of writing out the name of an element, we represent an element name with one or two letters.

As you know, the periodic table is a chemist's easy reference guide. As shown below, the periodic table contains the elements arranged by size of the atom that makes up the element and the properties of those atoms. Each element is represented by a chemical symbol consisting of letters. Examples of chemical symbols are shown in the next section.

Periodic Table of Elements

Origin of Chemical Symbols

So what are the origins of these chemical symbols? As early chemists (known as alchemists back then) discovered the fascinating world of chemistry, they often symbolized their newly discovered elements by weird icons, like the one shown here.

Alchemy Symbols

Compare these weird symbols to the ones used for these elements today:

1. Tin- Sn (from the Latin word, stannum)

2. Lead- Pb (from the Latin word, plumbus)

3. Gold- Au (from the Latin word, aurum)

4. Sulfur- S (from the Latin word, sulfurium)

5. Mercury- Hg (from the Latin word, hydrargyrum meaning 'liquid silver')

6. Silver- Ag (from the Latin word argentum)

7. Iron- Fe (from the Latin word ferrum)

All of these 118 elements on the periodic table have chemical symbols represented by the first letter or two of the name of the element. If the chemical symbol has two letters the first letter is always capitalized and the second letter is written in lowercase. For chemical symbols that consist of one letter, that letter is always capitalized. For example, C represents carbon, Ca for calcium, O for oxygen.

Some chemical symbols don't seem to make sense because the symbol doesn't correspond with the English word for the element. For example, the element gold is not 'G' or 'Go'. The chemical symbol for gold is Au. You are probably wondering why.

Many of the chemical symbols are derived from the Latin names of elements because Latin was once used as the international language of science. The Latin word for gold is aurum and that's where the chemical symbol for gold was derived.

After element number 56, you can see that many of the names of elements come from the name of a scientist or location where they were studied. Some elements are even named after planets. For example, element number 93 has the chemical symbol Np, from the name of the element, neptunium and it was named for the planet Neptune.

Element number 99 has the chemical symbol Es and is named for Albert Einstein. Element number 102 has the chemical symbol No and is named after Alfred Nobel. Because element number 97, was discovered by scientists working at the University of California in Berkeley, California, it has the chemical symbol Bk.

It wasn't until the early 1800s that attempts were made to standardize the way elements were represented. A Swedish scientist, Jöns Jakob Berzelius, is credited with coming up with a standard way to represent the elements, although he wasn't the first scientist to use them. He thought it would be so much easier to use letters instead of weird pictures to represent elements.

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