Nitrogen, the element with atomic number 7, takes its name from the French nitrogène. The root nitro- is a combining form of the nitre, via French from the Latin and Greek nitrum. Ultimately, it may come from the Egyptian ntrj. Nitre is a name for a variety of chemicals, including sodium carbonate (soda) and potassium nitrate (saltpeter).1 Nitrogen uses this root because it was first isolated from solutions of nitric acid.
The -gen suffix is from the French -gène, first used by Lavoisier and his crowd in the late 18th century. It is taken from the Greek -γενής, or -genis, born in or of a kind; it’s the same root as in genesis or generation.2
Nitrogen first appears in English in a translation of Lavoisier’s Elements of Chemistry by Robert Kerr:
It is proved to compose a part of the nitric acid, which gives as good reason to have called it nitrigen.
Within a few years, nitrogen had become the accepted term for the gas in English. Chemist William Nicholson comments on his 1791 translation of Jean-Antoine Chaptal’s Elements of Chemistry:
The denomination of Azotic Gas is not established according to the principles which have been adopted [...] In order to correct the nomenclature [...] I have presumed to propose that of Nitrogene Gas [...] It is deduced from the characteristic and exclusive property of this gas, which forms the radical of the nitric acid.3
Nitrogen had been first isolated by Scottish chemist Daniel Rutherford in 1772. Rutherford called it noxious air or fixed air. Lavoisier also called it azotic gas, formed from Greek roots άζώειν, azoein or lifeless, because it could not support life. It was also known as phlogisticated air, or burnt air, from the Greek roots φλογιστός, phlogistos, meaning burnt up. Phlogiston was believed to be a property or element of matter that sustained burning.
The chemical symbol for nitrogen is N, taken from the first letter of the name.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton