carbon / diamond / graphite

Carbon, the element with atomic number 6, takes its name from the French carbone, which in turn is from the Latin carbo, meaning charcoal.

While humans have been aware of the existence of carbon since prehistory, it wasn’t until the advent of modern chemistry in the 18th century that we began to understand its forms and properties and gave it its name. The French word carbone was coined in 1787 by French chemists Antoine Lavoisier, Claude-Louis Berthollet, L. B. Guyton de Morveau and A. F. Fourcroy in their Méthode de Nomenclature Chimique. That work was translated into English the following year, and this translation is the first known English use of carbon:

We adopt to it the modified name of carbon, which indicates the pure and essential principle of charcoal.1

Lavoisier was the first, in 1789, to recognize carbon as an element. He had also, in 1772, discovered that diamond was form a carbon. Also in this period, various groups of chemists discovered that graphite, which had been thought to be a form of lead, was actually carbon.

Diamond is a much older word, dating to the Middle English period. It comes from the Old French diamant, and ultimately from the Latin adamas, a hard substance like steel, which is also the root of adamant. Its English use dates to c.1325 when it appears in a lyric poem in the manuscript British Library Harley 2253:

Ichot a burde in a bour ase beryl so bryht [...]
ase diamaund þe dere in day when he is dyht.

(I shot a bird in a bower as a beryl so bright [...]
as a diamond so dear in the day when he is to die.)2

Graphite, like carbon, is a modern word. It first appears in German in 1789, and its English debut is in Richard Kirwan’s 1796 Elements of Mineralogy. The name is taken from the Greek root meaning writing because of its use in pencils.3

The chemical symbol for carbon is C, taken from the first letter of the name.


1Oxford English Dictionary, carbon, 3rd Edition, March 2009, Oxford University Press, accessed 21 August 2009, http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50033244.

2Ker, N.R., Facsimile of British Museum MS Harley 2253, Early English Text Society #255, Oxford University Press, 1965, f. 63r, lines 1-6; and Oxford English Dictionary, diamond, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 21 August 2009, http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50063191.

3Oxford English Dictionary, graphite, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 21 August 2009, http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50097949

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