Science Poetry

Roots of the Matter

“A prevalent metal is sodium;
Its tabled place: row three and column one.
The symbol seems mismatched;
From Latin, it’s dispatched:   
An abbreviation of natrium.”  

The 25 October 2019 limerick was the second of two to focus on a particular example of the “Marvelous Metals” generally celebrated in National Chemistry Week 2019.  This poem discussed sodium, specifically, examining its placement on the periodic table and the etymology of its name.     

“A prevalent metal is sodium; /
Its tabled place: row three and column one.”
Sodium is found in many settings on Earth.  On the Periodic Table of the Elements, sodium resides in the first column of the third row, classifying it as an alkali metal

In teaching, I have never looked up where the word alkali came from; given the etymological focus of the poem, this seems a fitting chance.  This word is derived from Arabic originally, meaning “from ashes of the ‘qaly,’ or saltwort.” Saltwort refers to any of several plants that live near saltwater; aqueous solutions of these plants’ ashes are basic. The alkali metals, likewise, react with water to form basic solutions.

“The symbol seems mismatched; /
From Latin, it’s dispatched: / 
An abbreviation of natrium.”
As seen in “Clashing Symbols,” some chemical elements’ symbols seem misaligned with their elements’ names.  Sodium’s name is derived from the Latin word natrium, which in turn refers to the Ancient Egyptian word natron, which historically referred to a salt mixture found in Egypt.  Sodium is found in many salts (ionic compounds), including sodium chloride (NaCl; table salt).   

Today, interestingly, natron is defined as a mixture of multiple compounds, each of which includes sodium.  While this likely is not dramatic enough of a change to qualify as an example of word drift (and, certainly, such a discussion quickly moves beyond my expertise!), the shift points to another challenge of learning chemistry: sifting out when detailed nuances are important to clarify and when they can be disregarded.  The dense rules of chemical nomenclature must be understood to learn General Chemistry; however, the etymologies and roots of the element names used in nomenclature rarely are explored.