Thursday, May 24

Elemental Names: Nitrogen

Periodic table, found via UNIFORM on Tumblr

Lucky number seven on the periodic table is Nitrogen, a mostly inert gas that makes up about 78% by volume of Earth's atmosphere. It was discovered by Scottish physicist Daniel Rutherford in 1772 — Rutherford's a name that's always intrigued me. It's mostly found as a surname (US President Rutherford B. Hayes is one famous exception) and there are conflicting theories as to its origin. It may refer to: a place in Scotland called Roxburgh, West Flemish place name Ruddervoorde, or a man named Ruther who carried an ancient king of the Scots across the River Tweed. Ruther might be less of a bulky burden than full-on Rutherford, but I do think its heft is part of its charm.

French chemist Antoine Lavoisier referred to nitrogen as "Azote," a Greek word meaning "lifeless." That's not the best meaning for a name, though I do like the look of Azote. Boy name Stellan might be more suitable — it may derive from stilling, an Old Norse word meaning "calm."  Stellan's a favorite of mine, and in 2011 it was at its most popular point ever in the US, though it's still very unusual  there were only 41 boys named Stellan born last year.

Another good option is Mortimer, which actress Shannyn Sossamon (perhaps most famous for naming her first son Audio Science) just used for her second child. It is derived from a place name meaning "still water" in Old French. 

Alchemists called nitrogen aqua fortis, or "strong water"  — and, mixed with hydrochloric acids, they called it aqua regia, or "royal water," for its ability to dissolve gold. I'm trying to remember who it was who had a daughter (or son?) named Alchemy, but I always thought its use as a name was kind of interesting. Some other names from the practice of alchemy include Cinnabar,  Amalgama, and Sol/Sal.

Nitrogen contributes to visible air glow in the Earth's upper atmosphere. The blue in the polar Aurora is due to the presence of nitric oxide  — free nitrogen atoms combining with oxygen (NO). Nitrous oxide (N2O), also called "laughing gas" is used as an anesthetic. Hebrew name Isaac means "he laughs," and has lots of nice variants, including Armenian Sahak, Finnish Iiro, Iikka and Iisaaki, Hungarian Izsák and Swedish Isak

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