element: Official Symbols and Names for the Elements

Each element is assigned an official symbol by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). For example, the symbol for carbon is C, and the symbol for silver is Ag [Lat. argentum = silver]. There are several ways of designating an isotope. One designation consists of the name or symbol of the element followed by a hyphen and the mass number of the isotope; thus the isotope of carbon with mass number 12 can be designated carbon-12 or C-12. The mass number is often written as a superscript, e.g., C 12; sometimes the atomic number is written as a subscript preceding the symbol, e.g., 6C 12. The IUPAC rules for nomenclature of inorganic chemistry state that the subscript atomic number and superscript mass number should both precede the symbol, e.g., 12 6 C .

Many isotopes were given special names and symbols when they were first discovered in natural radioactive decay series (e.g., uranium-235 was called actinouranium and represented by the symbol AcU). This practice is discouraged in the modern nomenclature except in the case of hydrogen. The isotopes hydrogen-2 and hydrogen-3 are usually called deuterium and tritium, respectively. Hydrogen-1, the most abundant isotope, has the name protium but is usually simply called hydrogen. Newly discovered elements that have been synthesized by one laboratory and not yet confirmed by a second are given a provisional name based on Greek and Latin roots; when the discovery is confirmed, the laboratory that first made it may suggest a name for the element.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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