phosphorus

Phosphorus, element number 15, was first isolated by German alchemist Hennig Brand in c.1674. While phosphorus is very common on earth, its high reactivity means that is not found as a free element and must be separated from the other constituents in the compounds it forms. In 1777, French chemist Antoine Lavoisier was the first to recognize phosphorus as an element.

The name comes into English from classical Latin, where Phosphorus is a name for the planet Venus. The name comes ultimately from the Greek; the roots are φως- (phos-, light) + -φόρος (-phoros, bringer). So phosphorus is the light-bringer, and the element is named for its luminescent properties.

Phosphorus as a name for Venus appears in Robert Parry’s 1595 Moderatus:

When Phosphorus declining West her tracke, Commaunding Nox her charge to take in hand.

As a name for the element, it appears in Robert Boyle’s 1680 The Aerial Noctiluca:

On the score of its uninterrupted action, it is called by some in Germany, the constant noctiluca; which title it does not ill deserve, since this phosphorus is much the noblest we have yet seen.

The same work also uses the word to refer to any luminescent substance:

Phosphoruses may well be distinguished into two sorts; those that may be stiled natural, as glow-worms, some sorts of rotten wood and fishes [...] and those that are properly artificial.1

The chemical symbol for phosphorus is P, taken from the first letter of its name.


1Oxford English Dictionary, phosphorus, 3rd Edition, June 2009, Oxford University Press, accessed 29 August 2009, http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50177812.

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