A chemical compound by any other name…

Stay with me folks… I'll get to the point eventually.

I am one of those people who is very good with names. Faces, I'm okay, but with names, I'm like some kind of middle-aged prodigy. I'm not talking about remembering the name of someone I just met at a conference or at a cocktail party. I'm as bad as the next person with that.

For me, it's more of a long-term thing. I remember the names of all kinds of folks from my past: from elementary school: bullies, geeks, jocks, the caretaker (Mr Hunter), teachers, nuns; washed-up television actors, neighbours, friends-of-friends and the guy who owned the local convenience store (Benny) who had a machine that could check the vacuum tubes of your television set. I even remember the names of peoples’ pets: my friend’s birds (Tweeter — I and II); my cousin in Amsterdam had a cocker spaniel named Wendy. I saw the dog once — in 1973.

It bothers me that I remember the names of people I'd rather forget. My wife asks me for a name — and I’ll have it. Lately, however, names can take a little while to recall — the mental rolodex doesn’t roll like it used to.

The other day I received an email from Kevin Bell, a chemistry teacher and a subscriber to Chem 13 News. He asked me about a name. He wanted to know why MnO2, manganese(IV) oxide, is called manganese dioxide. To that I add my own question: why is Na3PO4, available in the hardware store, called TSP — trisodium phosphate? Students — Kevin's, mine and probably yours — want to know why these (seemingly) ionic compounds should use the verboten prefixes?

This kind of thing extends to organic chemistry. In spite of the best efforts of this publication,1 old-fashioned names persist. Why is ethyne, a perfectly good systematically named compound, still called acetylene? Why is propanone known as acetone? (Say that ten times fast!) Why do some Richards call themselves "Dick"?

How am I supposed to know?

And what’s up with classical names for ions, such as ferric and stannous? I thought that the Stock system took care of those pesky old-fashioned names. Do chemistry teachers inflict that ordeal on their students simply because they had to learn it? I don't see myself as particularly spiteful, but I keep teachin’ that danged classical stuff.

So maybe you’re good with names, or maybe you’re not. Regardless, I’ll bet you’re confused with what is going on with some parts of chemical nomenclature. I invite readers to weigh in on this: explanations, suggestions, or rants are welcome.


  1. S. Skonieczny and A. Dicks, Nomenclature of Organic Compounds, Parts I and II, Chem 13 News, October and November 2009.