Scott Ogilvie, a fourth former of King's High School, asks :-

Why do we use Latin names for Chemical symbols?

Jack Fergusson, a chemist at the University of Canterbury, responded.

The present day symbols for the chemical elements were first proposed by a Swedish chemist Jons Jacob Berzelius (1779-1848) in 1811. He suggested that the first letter of the Latin name of the element be used as the symbol. If the names of a number of elements had the same initial letter than Berzelius suggested using the first and one other letter in the name.

The system of symbols proposed by Berzelius simplified the writing of chemical formulae, which was a major advantage over other systems.

Berzelius selected Latin because he considered the Latin source of the name as superior, and he insisted at times in the use of the Latin name, such as natrium (Na) for sodium and wolframium (W) for tungsten (even though tungsten is a Swedish word for heavy stone). His proposals were not universally accepted at first, but eventually were adopted, due in part to his authority as a chemist. When the symbol used for an element does not relate to the name we now use, it tells us that, either a non-Latin name (e.g. tungsten) or another Latin name (e.g. mercury (Hg), instead of hydrargyrus) has become the popular name.

A number of other systems of symbols were proposed by chemists around the same time, but mostly these were diagrams rather than just letters. For example John Dalton in 1835 suggested symbols such as circles. With nothing inside it for oxygen, with a dot in the centre for hydrogen, with a vertical bar inside for nitrogen and a Z inside for zinc. Imagine trying to write chemical formulae with these symbols!