Physics Van 3-site Navigational Menu

Physics Van Navigational Menu

Q & A: Historical Linguistics - Calcium

Learn more physics!

Most recent answer: 10/22/2007
Q:
I need to get information about the origin of the name and the symbol of calcium...
- Maria (age 17)
Western high School, weston, fl, U.S
A:
Maria -

The element Calcium was discovered in 1808 in England by a scientist named Sir Humphrey Davy. He was trying to make a substance that we now call calcium amalgamate by mixing lime (also called calcium oxide - CaO) with mercuric oxide (HgO) and putting an electric current across it - a process called 'electrolysis'. He'd heard of this being done by others but aparently didn't get it quite right, since he managed to produce isolated (if somewhat impure) calcium. For more info on the history of the element calcium, you can check out this link to page.

As for where the name 'calcium' came from, we have to delve into a study known as 'historical linguistics', which has to do with how words come into existance. You can find information on this by looking in a dictionary - the bigger the dictionary, the better. One of the best dictionaries for this is the Oxford English Dictionary, but I don't happen to own that one, so I'm going to tell you what I've found in my copy of Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary.

After looking up 'calcium', you want to look at the word's etymology. The etymology is the part that's written in square brackets like these: [...]. The etymology uses lots of symbols and abbreviations that you may not know, but you can find explanations of them all somewhere near the front or the back of the book. This is what my dictionary gives for the etymology of 'calcium':

"[1800-1810; CALC- + -IUM]"

This means that the word originated between 1800 and 1810 by combining the word prefix 'calc-' and the suffix '-ium'. For the origins of these parts, I can look them up separately:

'calc-': "[< G kalk lime < L calc- (s. of calx) lime, limestone; see CALX, CHALK]"

Ok, so this seems like a lot of gibberish, so I'll translate. The prefix 'calc-' comes first from the Greek word 'kalk' (meaning 'lime'), which itself came from the Latin word 'calc-' (the singular form of the plural word 'calx', meaning 'lime' or 'limestone'). For more info, you can look up the word 'calx' or 'chalk'. Just for curiosity's sake, I looked up 'calx' and found that the word actually was borrowed into late Middle English (the type of English that came before we got what we're used to now) from Latin sometime between 1350 and 1400.

Now, it makes sense that the word 'calcium' would come from the word for lime, since Sir Humphrey Davy discovered calcium when he accidentally isolated it from lime. But what about the '-ium' part? Well, when I looked that up, I found that my dictionary defines it as "a suffix found on nouns borrowed from Latin". This also makes sense, since we just figured out that 'calc-' comes originally from Latin.

As for the symbol, Ca, it's just short for calcium, and it's been used at least since 1869, when Demitrii Mendeleev came up with the .

-Tamara

(published on 10/22/2007)

Follow-up on this answer.