Understanding Element Names and Symbols


Elements names and symbols are used to identify the different elements of the periodic table. In this section you will explore why elements are named the way they are and also the importance of symbols of these elements and how they are used in the periodic table.

Elements all have different names a they are all unique. Much like humans we have different features that make us unique, elements have different features such as their properties, the way they react and their names that make them unique and different. But where do these names come from? Currently there is an international organization called IUPAC or the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and they have the task of ensuring that elements are named appropriately. This has only applied in the last 50 years however. Before this most elements were named after the people who discovered, people who inspired them or where they were discovered. For example the actinide Americium is named after its discovery location in America, Californium as you may have guessed was named after the state of California. Bohrium for example, is named after the scientist Niels Bohr to recognize all the work he did on the atomic structure. If we look at elements that were discovered much further back time however many of them are named using Latin, an ancient language used in the Roman empire. For example gold has the symbol Au, for Aurum the Latin word for gold. Calcium is named after the latin word, Calx meaning lime due to its alkaline properties.

But we don’t always used their names. Sometimes we refer to elements using their chemical symbols which are usually 1 to 2 letter long words that abbreviate the name and can be used to quickly identify the element.In the periodic table, each element has a defined name and this is represented by its symbol. It is not always the case that the name easily relates to the element. Some elements have symbols based on their old-world names. Iron has the symbol Fe from the Latin word Ferrum. Other elements have symbols based on the first letters of their name, Lithium is Li and Gallium is Ga. Each element has its own unique story as to its name and symbol. A symbol is used in place of the full name as this makes the periodic table much easier to read and to scan. For example, if the periodic table included the names of all the elements it would be much larger and not very easy to use. The chemical symbol makes the periodic table very easy to use. Symbols also have use when writing the formulas of compounds for example instead of writing calcium carbonate we can write CaCO3. This tells us that the compound calcium carbonate contains one calcium atom, one carbon atom and 3 oxygen atoms.

Terms in section
Chemical Symbol

A chemical symbol is the two or three letter abbreviation in the periodic table that represents the element in the periodic table. It is not always based on the name such as Iron which has the symbol Fe based on its latin name.

Niels Bohr

Niels Bohr was a Danish physicist who made many leaps in theoretical chemistry using mathematical modelling. He developed the model of electrons existing in shells or energy levels.


Actinides are elements from the atomic number 89 to 103 largely forming the F block of elements in the extended periodic table. They are mostly radioactive


Elements are atoms with the same number of protons in the nucleus


The Atomic Structure in the Periodic Table


Elements in Everyday Life and Practice