hydrogen

The lightest of chemical elements is hydrogen. Over the centuries, a number of chemists and alchemists managed to produce hydrogen, but it wasn’t until 1766 that British chemist Henry Cavendish recognized it as a discrete element. Cavendish dubbed his discovery inflammable air. French chemist Antoine Lavoisier gave it the name hydrogen, a modern combination of Greek roots that literally means generator of water, in 1783, due to the fact that when burned, hydrogen combines with oxygen in the air to produce water.

The first English citation of the name hydrogen in the Oxford English Dictionary is by Erasmus Darwin, physician and grandfather to Charles. Erasmus Darwin used the word multiple times in notes to his 1791 poem The Botanic Garden, including this one:

Mr. Lavoisier and others of the French School have most ingeniously endeavoured to shew that water consists of pure air, called by them oxygene, and of inflammable air, called hydrogene.

Within just a few years, the name hydrogen was being freely used in English, without reference to the French, replacing inflammable air.

The chemical symbol for hydrogen is H, the first letter of its name1


1Oxford English Dictionary, hydrogen, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 10 August 2009, http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50109932.

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