Thursday, November 1, 2018

Language of Confusion: Atomic

This week’s post is inspired by Liz, who gave me a suggestion to etymologize the word nuclear over a month ago that I’m just now getting around to.

Nuclear showed up in 1841, although it didn’t have to do with physics until 1914. Back in the nineteen hundreds, it just meant related to the nucleus of the cell and it was created by mixing nucleus with the word forming suffix -ar, which means “pertaining to” or “of the nature of” (the word nuclear itself was probably influenced by the French word nucléaire). So the word is pertaining to the nucleus. But what is nucleus?

Nucleus showed up in 1704 meaning, get this, the kernel of a nut and a few years later the head of a comet. It’s directly copies from the classical Latin word nucleus, which literally means a kernel or core and is from nux, which means… a nut. Did cells remind them of nuts or something? And then that got transferred to atomic particles? And now we’re left with a word that I will never be able to read again without thinking “nuclear kind of means ‘nutty’”?

Speaking of atomic, atom showed up in the late fifteenth century, where it was only a hypothetical, indivisible, extremely small body. And they turned out to be right about everything except it being indivisible, so good job, fifteenth century scientists. It comes from the classical Latin atomus, which meant atom or an indivisible amount, and the Greek atomos, indivisible. The a- is a prefix that means not and tomos meant “a cutting”, from temnein, to cut. So it seems that atoms were named for the one thing that they’re not, indivisible.

Next, ion. It was introduced in 1834 and taken from the Greek ion. Which means ion. But that’s from the word ienai, go, from the Proto Indo European ei-, to go, which is one of those word pieces that shows up in a lot of stuff. Ion also forms the back half of electron and proton, the names of which were made up in 1891 and 1920, respectively. Electron is just electric + ion, but proton actually comes from the Greek word proton, from protos, first (it’s where the prefix proto- comes from). A proton was (back then) thought to be made of Hydrogen, the first element, because back in the 1920’s they theorized that it made up all elements. Much like with atom, they turned out to be wrong, but the name stuck because scientists are nothing if not obdurate when it comes to names.



  1. Interesting. I liked that bit about atomic.

  2. What's that saying? If you don't know what it is, name it. Something like that.

    Thanks for this. I forgot I had asked (after watching The Day After in a chemistry class). I did know that atom meant indivisible, because they thought you couldn't get any smaller than an atom. Then they did. Then they broke those pieces up some more (quarks). It just keeps getting smaller and smaller...

    Quantum theory, the gift that keeps on giving.

  3. Hrm... must resist mansplaining...

  4. I'm always amazed at how old some of these words are because there was no way people in those days could explore things too small to see, yet they were aware of them and named them anyway.


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