Some elements were named in ancient times, and we don’t know the exact origins. Gold, silver, copper, lead, tin, iron, zinc, and carbon were all known to the ancients, and their names come from attributes like their color, or where they were originally found, or what their uses were. The word carbon comes from the word for ‘coal’, and gold comes from the word for yellow. Mercury was named after a Roman god.
Other elements were discovered by chemists, who gave them names that we have some history for. Hydrogen means ‘water maker’ because when it burns, we get water. It was discovered by Henry Cavendish, but named by Antoine Lavoisier in 1783. Helium was first discovered by its spectral lines in the sun, and was named after the Greek word for the sun.
Potassium was discovered in 1807 by Humphrey Davy, and named after the material it was extracted from – potash, or potassium hydroxide, which was literally pot ash, the ashes that remain in a pot after burning vegetable matter.
Other elements were named after countries. Francium, polonium, europium, gallium, germanium, and americium, for example. Some were named after people – rutherfordium, seaborgium, bohrium, meitnerium, roentgenium, copernicium, curium, fermium, einsteinium, mendelevium, nobelium, lawrencium. Uranium, neptunium, and plutonium were named for planets. Palladium was named after an asteroid, which was named for a Greek goddess. Other gods gave thorium, selenium, and mercury their names, although the latter may have been named for a planet that was named for a god.
Some elements are named for the towns, universities, or laboratories where they were discovered. Berkelium, dubnium, hassium, darmstadtium, terbium, ytterbium, erbium, yttrium, and californium, for example.