Cynthia has taught high school science courses for many years and has a Master of Science degree and a Master of Arts in Teaching.
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.
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.
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.
Use of Chemical Symbols
As you learned, scientists standardized the short-hand way we represent elements, by their chemical symbol. One of the main reasons this was developed was because using letters was the easiest way to represent the elements.
Another reason that we use chemical symbols is to allow us to write chemical formulas easily. A chemical formula is a representation of a compound or molecule that contains more than one atom. For example, the chemical formula for carbon monoxide is CO. You write the chemical symbol for carbon, followed by O. You can learn more about writing chemical formulas in other lessons if you are interested.
Examples of Chemical Symbols
To start becoming familiar with some common elements and their chemical symbols review the pictures below. They show the chemical symbol, and where the element is located on the periodic table. In your study of chemistry, you shouldn't need to memorize all of the chemical symbols on the periodic table since every good chemist (and student of chemistry) always has his or her copy of a periodic table available.
In this lesson you learned that a chemical symbol is a shorthand way to represent an element and that each element on the periodic table has a unique chemical symbol. Chemical symbols are used to standardize the 'language of chemistry' and to identify elements and atoms in a chemical formula easily. Chemical symbols consist of one or two letters, most often derived from the name of the element. Our standard chemical symbols used today have been in use for over two hundred years.
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