How did Germans name elements?
February 16, 2022 6:17 PM   Subscribe

I learned today that the German translation of "oxygen" is "sauerstoff". I was surprised, because I think the "sauer" part of this is a reference to acid (like, "sauerkraut" = sour cabbage). Then I started hitting Google translate...

Nitrogen = stickstoff
Hydrogen = wasserstoff
carbon = kohlenstoff

What is the etymology of these words? What is the relationship between oxygen and acid, or hydrogen and water, or nitrogen and ... stickiness?
I know a little about Latin and Greek word roots, but (obviously) very little about German. Long explanations / links to pedantic etymologies are welcome
posted by Vatnesine to Science & Nature (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: There's a German wikipedia article on element name etymologies. Google translations of some relevant sections:

Oxygen (also Oxygenium; from Greek οξύς oxýs "sharp, pointed, sour" and γενέσε genese "to produce"). In the past, oxygen was held responsible for the formation of acids. In fact, most inorganic acids are formed when nonmetal oxides dissolve in water, which is made up of hydrogen and oxygen. It was not recognized until later that it was not the oxygen but the hydrogen that was responsible for the acidity; one proof is hydrochloric acid, it is also an acid as a gas and consists of the combination of chlorine with hydrogen and contains no oxygen. Oxygen should actually be called hydrogen and hydrogen should be called oxygen.

[...] Lavoisier continued to study the resulting gas and conducted what is now known as the oxyhydrogen test, during which the gas burned. He therefore initially called it “combustible air”. When he showed in further experiments that water can also be produced from the gas in reverse, he named it hydro-gène (hydro = water, Greek; genes = producing). The word therefore means “water-former”. The German name suggests the same origin of the term.

Stickstoff (looks like "erstickt" means "smothered"):
The element symbol N is derived from the Latin name nitrogenium (from ancient Greek νίτρον "lye salt" and ancient Greek γένος "origin"). The German term nitrogen is a reminder that molecular nitrogen extinguishes (“smothers”) flames.
posted by trig at 6:44 PM on February 16, 2022 [7 favorites]

Best answer: For what it's worth, in terms of morphemic structure, "hydrogen" and "wasserstoff" are functionally (if not historically; I don't know) calques for one other. So in that sense there's nothing particularly semantically odd about the German name that wouldn't be present in the English (Greek-ish) name.
posted by dusty potato at 6:48 PM on February 16, 2022 [3 favorites]

Yes, and in case it doesn't stand out from the long etymology, "oxy-gen" is likewise basically "acid-producing".
posted by trig at 6:51 PM on February 16, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Sauerstoff: the key here is still the noun Säure and the adjective sauer, which does mean "acid"/"acidic" just as you thought. Our understanding of acids and bases has evolved, but 18th century scientists originally thought that oxygen formed the basis of acid/base chemistry, not hydrogen. (Importantly here, a lot of inorganic acids (e.g. sulfuric acid, phosphoric acid) contain a bunch of oxygen.) Lavoisier's name oxygène actually relies on this too - ὀξύς (oxys, "acid") and γενής (genes, "creator"), making oxygen the acid-maker.

Kohlenstoff: the key for this one is the noun Kohle, "coal" (also charcoal, etc.) Carbon is the relevant component of coal and charcoal, so carbon is coal-stuff, the stuff out of which coal is made. English does the same thing via a Latinate root: carbo, "coal".

Wasserstoff: the key for this one is the noun Wasser, "water." Hydrogen is the (non-oxygen) component of water, and so hydrogen is water-stuff. As with Sauerstoff, this is another one that actually parallels the English etymology, via Greek: ὑδρο (hydro, "water") and γενής (genes, "maker"), making hydrogen the water-maker.

Stickstoff: the key here is the verb ersticken, "to suffocate". Breathing in only nitrogen will suffocate you, ergo nitrogen is suffocation-stuff. (The German wiki entry points out more poetically that flames are also suffocated when nitrogen displaces oxygen.) This is the only element of the listed set whose name really varies in origin between German and English. The etymology in English is weirder due to its connection via the term nitre to the source of the periodic table abbreviation for sodium, "Na" (from "natron", a sodium (bi)carbonate mix).

Basically, German just doesn't hide the origins of the names in faux-Latin or faux-Greek neologisms, and it adds "-stoff" (stuff) as a suffix to indicate that we're not talking about water, coal, acid, or suffoccating gasses, we're talking about the elements that make them up.
posted by ASF Tod und Schwerkraft at 6:51 PM on February 16, 2022 [18 favorites]

Best answer: You might appreciate Uncleftish Beholding, which attempts to show what some of the language of physics and chemistry would look like in English without latin and greek roots.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 7:09 PM on February 16, 2022 [28 favorites]

Best answer: In the past, oxygen was held responsible for the formation of acids. In fact, most inorganic acids are formed when nonmetal oxides dissolve in water, which is made up of hydrogen and oxygen.

Oxygen also reacts with ethanol to make acetic acid, which is the reaction that sours improperly stored wine and turns it to vinegar.
posted by flabdablet at 8:06 PM on February 16, 2022

Best answer: You might be interested to know the Japanese words for these:
Oxygen: 酸素, "acid element"
Water: 水素, "water element"
Carbon: 炭素, "coal element"
Nitrogen: 窒素, "suffocation element"

Germany had a strong influence on science in Japan, although I'm not certain that these were directly adapted from German.
posted by adamrice at 6:32 AM on February 17, 2022 [2 favorites]

It's true. Also, a lot of medical vocabulary in Japanese comes from German.
posted by Rash at 7:59 AM on February 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

You've already gotten good answers, but just as a note, German often eschews Latin and Greek compounds in favor of German translations in other domains, not just chemistry. A rhinoceros (from ancient Greek rhis, nose, and keras, horn) is called a Nashorn – nose-horn – in German.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:03 AM on February 17, 2022

Early rocket fuels got the "stoff" designation too, because Germany.

Wikipedia: List of stoffs
posted by neckro23 at 11:52 AM on February 17, 2022 [2 favorites]

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