oxygen

Oxygen, the element with atomic number 8, has an etymology very similar to nitrogen. Like element number 7, it comes from the French, in this case oxygène. Oxygen was discovered independently by German-Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele and British chemist Joseph Priestley. Priestley is usually given pride of place because he published his discovery first in 1774. The name oxygine, later changed to oxygène, was first proposed by French chemist Antoine Lavoisier in 1778. 

The root oxy- is from the Greek οξυ- meaning acid.1 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 Lavoisier mistakenly thought oxygen was present in all acids.

Oxygen first appears in English in James St. John’s 1788 translation of Méthode de Nomenclature Chimique by Lavoisier, Claude-Louis Berthollet, L. B. Guyton de Morveau and A. F. Fourcroy:

Oxygen, or that part of vital air that fixes itself in the bodies which burn, thereby augmenting their weight, and changing their nature, and whose principal property is to form the acids from which property we have derived its appellation.3

Earlier names for the gas included vital air, because Priestley and Scheele had discovered that it was necessary for life, and dephlogisticated air, or unburnt, air, from the Greek root φλογιστός, phlogistos, meaning burnt up. Prior to Lavoisier’s discoveries, an unknown substance called phlogiston was believed to be a property or element of matter that sustained burning.

The chemical symbol for oxygen is O, taken from the first letter of the name.


1Oxford English Dictionary, oxy-, 3rd Edition, December 2008, Oxford University Press, accessed 24 August 2009, http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50168727.

2Oxford English Dictionary, -gen, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 22 August 2009, http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50093508.

3Oxford English Dictionary, oxygen, 3rd Edition, June 2009, Oxford University Press, accessed 24 August 2009, http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50168763

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