uranium, Uranus, pitchblende

Uranium, element 92, was identified as an element in 1789 by German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth, who named it after the recently discovered planet Uranus. In Greek mythology, Uranus was the primordial sky deity who mated with Gaia, the earth, to give birth to the Titans, the race of beings who preceded the Olympian gods. The chemical symbol for uranium is U. English use of the name uranium dates to at least 1797, when it appears in the third edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Uranium, a fossil found [...] in Saxony, and [...] in Bohemia, and is, by the miners, called Pechblend.1

Pitchblende, the name for uranium oxide ore, is from the German pechblende, which is a compound of pech, or pitch, + blende. The ore is black and resembles pitch or tar. Blende is zinc sulphide, an ore which resembles galena, but is worthless as it contains no lead. The name is also applied to various other (supposedly) worthless ores, like pitchblende, and is from the German verb blenden, to deceive.2 Some mistakenly take the first element to be from the German sense of pech meaning bad luck, due to the ore’s absence of silver, but this sense isn’t attested to until later. The German pechblende dates to at least 1720; English use of pitchblende dates to at least 1770.3

The planet Uranus, for which the element is named, was discovered in 1781 by English astronomer William Herschel, who named his discovery the Georgium sidus, the Georgian planet, after King George III. Needless to say, this name was not popular outside of Britain, and German astronomer Johann Elert Bode suggested the name Uranus, which followed the tradition of planetary names from classical myth. The name is particularly apt because Uranus is the planet after Saturn, and in myth Uranus is the father of the Titan Saturn. English use of Bode’s name dates to at least 1802, when it appears in Olinthus Gregory’s Treatise on Astronomy:

By some astronomers it is called Herschel, in honour of the discoverer; though among almost all foreigners, it has acquired the name of uranius [sic], which it is likely to retain.4


1Oxford English Dictionary, uranium, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 18 November 2009, http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50273558.

2Oxford English Dictionary, blende, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 18 November 2009, http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50023473.

3Oxford English Dictionary, pitchblende, 3rd Edition, September 2009, Oxford University Press, accessed 18 November 2009, http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50180241.

4Oxford English Dictionary, Uranus, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 18 November 2009, http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50273577

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