Confusing chemical names: why do some sound so similiar?

It’s the end of March as I write this and, here in the UK at least, things are starting to feel a little bit hopeful. We’ve passed the spring equinox and the clocks have just gone forward. Arguments about the rights and wrongs of that aside, it does mean daylight late into the day, which means more opportunities to get outside in the evenings. Plus, of course, COVID-19 vaccines are rolling out, with many adults having had at least their first dose.

Some COVID-19 vaccines contain polyethylene glycol (PEG), a safe substance found in toothpaste, laxatives and other products, according to Science magazine and health expertsAh, yes. Speaking of vaccines… a couple of weeks ago I spotted a rather strange item trending on Twitter. The headline was: “Some COVID-19 vaccines contain polyethylene glycol (PEG), a safe substance found in toothpaste, laxatives and other products, according to Science magazine and health experts.”

Apart from being a bit of mouthful, this seemed like the most non-headline ever. And also, isn’t it the kind of thing that might raise suspicions in a certain mind? In a, “yeah, and why do they feel the need to tell us that, huh” sort of way?

Why on earth did it even exist?

A little bit of detective work later (by which I mean me tweeting about it and other people kindly taking the time to enlighten me) and I had my answer. The COVID-19 sceptic Alex Berenson had tweeted that the vaccine(s) contained antifreeze. Several people had immediately responded to say that, no, none of the vaccine formulations contain antifreeze. Antifreeze is ethylene glycol, which is definitely not the same thing as polyethylene glycol.

I’m not going to go much further into the vaccine ingredients thing, because actual toxicologists weighed in on that, and there’s nothing I (not a toxicologist) can really add. But this did get me thinking about chemical names, how chemists name compounds, and why some chemical names seem terrifyingly long while others seem, well, a bit silly.

A lot of the chemical names that have been around for a long time are just… names. That is, given to substances for a mixture of reasons. They do usually have something to do with the chemical makeup of the thing in question, but it might be a bit tangential.

formic acid, HCOOH, was first extracted from ants

For example, formic acid, HCOOH, takes its name from the Latin word for ant, formica, because it was first isolated by, er, distilling ant bodies (sorry, myrmecologists). On the other hand limestone, CaCO3, quicklime, CaO, and limewater, a solution of Ca(OH)2, all get their names from the old English word lim, meaning “a sticky substance,” which is also connected to the Latin limus, from which we get the modern word slime — because lime (mostly CaO) is the sticky stuff used to make building mortar.

The trouble with this sort of system, though, is that it gets out of control. The number of organic compounds listed in the American Chemical Society‘s index is in excess of 30 million. On top of which, chemists have an annoying habit of making new ones. Much as some people might think forcing budding chemists to memorise hundreds of thousands of unrelated names is a jolly good idea, it’s simply not very practical (hehe).

It’s the French chemist, Auguste Laurent, who usually gets most of the credit for deciding that organic chemistry needed a system. He was a remarkable scientist who discovered and synthesised lots of organic compounds for the first time, but it was his proposal that organic molecules be named according to their functional groups that would change things for chemistry students for many generations to come.

Auguste Laurent (image source)

Back in 1760 or so, memorising the names of substances wasn’t that much of a chore. There were half a dozen acids, a mere eleven metallic substances, and about thirty salts which were widely known and studied. There were others, of course, but still, compared to today it was a tiny number. Even if they were all named after something to do with their nature, or the discoverer, or a typical property, it wasn’t that difficult to keep on top of things.

But over the next twenty years, things… exploded. Sometimes literally, since health and safety wasn’t really a thing then, but also figuratively, in terms of the number of compounds being reported. It was horribly confusing, there were lots of synonyms, and the situation really wasn’t satisfactory. How can you replicate another scientist’s experiment if you’re not even completely sure of their starting materials?

In 1787 another French chemist, Guyton de Morveau, suggested the first general nomenclature — mostly for acids, bases and salts — with a few simple principles:

  • each substance should have a unique name, as short and specific as possible
  • the name should reflect what the substance consisted of, that is, describe its “composing parts”
  • unknown substances should be assigned names with no particular meaning, being sure not to suggest something false about the substance (if you know it’s not an acid, for example, don’t name it someinterestingname acid)
  • new names should be based on old languages, such as Latin

His ideas were accepted and adopted by most chemists at the time, although a few did attack them, claiming they were “barbarian, incomprehensible, and without etymology” (reminds me of some of the arguments I’ve had about sulfur). Still, his classification was eventually made official, after he presented it to the Académie des Sciences.

Chemists needed a naming system that would allow them to quickly identify chemical compounds.

However, by the middle of the 1800s, the number of organic compounds — that is, ones containing carbon and hydrogen — was growing very fast, and it was becoming a serious problem. Different methods were proposed to sort through the messy, and somewhat arbitrary, accumulation of names.

Enter Auguste Laurent. His idea was simple: name your substance based on the longest chain of carbon atoms it contains. As he said, “all chemical combinations derive from a hydrocarbon.” There was a bit more to it, and he had proposals for dealing with specific substances such as amines and aldehydes, and of course it was in French, but that was the fundamental idea.

It caused trouble, as good ideas so often do. Most of the other chemists of the time felt that chemical names should derive from the substance’s origins. Indeed, some of the common ones that chemistry professors are clinging onto today still do. For example, the Latin for vinegar is acetum, from which we get acetic acid. But, since organic chemistry was increasingly about making stuff, it didn’t entirely make sense to name compounds after things they might have come from, if they’d come from nature — even when they hadn’t.

So, today, we have a system that’s based on Laurent’s ideas, as well as work by Jean-Baptiste Dumas and, importantly, the concept of homology — which came from Charles Gerhardt.

Homology means putting organic compounds into “families”. For example, the simplest family is the alkanes, and the first few are named like this:

Like human families, chemical families share parts of their names and certain characteristics.

The thing to notice here is that all the family members have the same last name, or rather, their names all end with the same thing: “ane”. That’s what tells us they’re alkanes (they used to be called paraffins, but that’s a name with other meanings — see why we needed a system?).

So the end of the name tells us the family, and the first part of the name tells us about the number of carbons: something with one carbon in it starts with “meth”. Something with five starts with “pent”, and so on. We can go on and on to much bigger numbers, too. It’s a bit like naming your kids by their birth order, not that anyone would do such a thing.

There are lots of chemical families. The alcohols all end in “ol”. Carboxylic acids all end in “oic acid” and ketones end in “one” (as in bone, not the number). These endings tell us about certain groups of atoms the molecules all contain — a bit like everyone in a family having the same colour eyes, or the same shaped nose.

A chemist that’s learned the system can look at a name like this and tell you, just from the words, exactly which atoms are present, how many there are of each, and how they’re joined together. Which, when you think about it, is actually pretty awesome.

Which brings me back to the start and the confusion of glycols. Ah, you may be thinking, so ethylene glycol and polyethylene glycol are part of the same family? Their names end with the same thing, but they start differently?

Well, hah, yes and no. You remember a moment ago when I said that there are still some “common” names in use, that came from origins — for example acetic acid (properly named ethanoic acid)? Well, these substances are a bit like that. The ending “glycol” originates from “glycerine” because the first ones came from, yes, glycerine — which you get when fats are broken down.

Polyethylene glycol (PEG) is a polymer, with very different properties to ethylene glycol (image source)

Things that end in glycol are actually diols, that is, molecules which contain two -OH groups of atoms (“di” meaning two, “ol” indicating alcohol). Ethylene glycol is systematically named ethane-1,2-diol, from which a chemist would deduce that it contains two carbon atoms (“eth”) with alcohol groups (“ol”) on different carbons (1,2).

Polyethylene glycol, on the other hand, is named poly(ethylene oxide) by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), who get the final say on these things. The “poly” tells us it’s a polymer — that is, a very long molecule made by joining up lots and lots of smaller ones. In theory, the “ethylene oxide” bit tells us what those smaller molecules were, before they all got connected up to make some new stuff.

Okay, fine. So what’s ethylene oxide? Well, you see, that’s not quite a systematic name, either. Ethylene oxide is a triangular-shaped molecule with an oxygen atom in it, systematically named oxirane. Why poly(ethylene oxide), and not poly(oxirane), then? Mainly, as far as I can work out, to avoid confusion with epoxy resins and… look, I think we’ve gone far enough into labyrinth at this point.

The thing is, polyethylene glycol is usually made from ethylene glycol. Since everyone tends to call ethylene glycol that (and rarely, if ever, ethane-1,2-diol), it makes sense to call the polymer polyethylene glycol. Ethylene glycol makes polyethylene glycol. Simple.

Plastic bags are made from polythene, which has very different properties to the ethene that’s used to make it.

Polymers are very different to the molecules they’re made from. Of course they are, otherwise why bother? For example, ethene (also called ethylene, look, I’m sorry) is a colourless, flammable gas at room temperature. Poly(ethylene) — often just called polythene — is used to make umpteen things, including plastic bags. They’re verrrrry different. A flammable gas wouldn’t be much use for keeping the rain off your broccoli and sourdough.

Likewise, ethylene glycol is a colourless, sweet-tasting, thick liquid at room temperature. It’s an ingredient in some antifreeze products, and is, yes, toxic if swallowed — damaging to the heart, kidneys and central nervous system and potentially fatal in high enough doses. Polyethylene glycol, or PEG, on the other hand, is a solid or a liquid (depending on how many smaller molecules were joined together) that’s essentially biologically inert. It passes straight through the body, barely stopping along the way. In fact, it’s even used as a laxative.

So the headlines were accurate: PEG is “a safe substance found in toothpaste, laxatives and other products.” It is non-toxic, and describing it as “antifreeze” is utterly ridiculous.

In summary: different chemicals, in theory, have nice, logical, tell-you-everything about them names. But, a bit like humans, some of them have obscure nicknames that bear little resemblance to their “real” names. They will insist on going by those names, though, so we just need to get on with it.

The one light in this confusingly dark tunnel is the internet. In my day (croak) you had to memorise non-systematic chemical names because, unless you had a copy of the weighty rubber handbook within reach, there was no easy way to look them up. These days you can type a name into Google (apparently other search engines are available) and, in under a second, all the names that chemical has ever been called will be presented to you. And its chemical formula. And multiple other useful bits of information. It’s even possible to search by chemical structure these days. Kids don’t know they’re born, I tell you.

Anyway, don’t be scared of chemical names. They’re just names. Check what things actually are. And never, ever listen to Alex Berenson.

And get your vaccine!

If you’re studying chemistry, have you got your Pocket Chemist yet? Why not grab one? It’s a hugely useful tool, and by buying one you’ll be supporting this site – it’s win-win! If you happen to know a chemist, it would make a brilliant stocking-filler! As would a set of chemistry word magnets!

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What IS a chemical?


You at the back there! Get your nose out of that dictionary and pay attention!

What do we mean when we use the word “chemical”? It seems like a simple enough question, but is it, really? I write about chemicals all the time – in fact my last WhatCulture article was about just that – and I’ve mentioned lots of different definitions before. But I’ll be honest, some of them have bothered me.

I don’t often like the definitions you find in dictionaries. Lexicography and chemistry don’t seem to be common bedfellows, and dictionary compilers haven’t, generally speaking, spent their formative years being incessantly nagged by weary chemistry teachers about their choice of vocabulary.

For example, in the Cambridge Dictionary we find:
any basic substance that is used in or produced by a reaction involving changes to atoms or molecules.”

Hm. Firstly, “basic” has a specific meaning in chemistry. Obviously the definition doesn’t mean to imply that acids aren’t chemicals, but it sort of accidentally does. Then there’s the implication that a chemical reaction has to be involved. So inert substances aren’t chemicals? Admittedly, “used in” doesn’t necessarily imply reacts – it could be some sort of inert solvent, say – but, again, it’s bothersome. Finally, “atoms or molecules”. Ionic substances not chemicals either, then?

Yes, it’s picky, but chemists are picky. Be glad that we are. A misplaced word, or even letter, on a label could have serious consequences. Trust me, you do not want to mix up the methanol with the ethanol if you’re planning cocktails. Similarly, fluorine is a whole other kettle of piranhas compared to fluoride ions. This stuff, excuse the pun, matters.

Dictionary definitions have their problems.

Dictionary definitions have their problems.

Let’s look at some more definitions (of the word as a noun):

The Free Dictionary tells us that a chemical is:
“A substance with a distinct molecular composition that is produced by or used in a chemical process.”

Merriam Webster says:
“of, relating to, used in, or produced by chemistry or the phenomena of chemistry <chemical reactions>”

And goes with the simple:
“a substance produced by or used in a chemical process.”

That idea that a chemical reaction must be involved somehow seems to be pervasive. It’s understandable, since that’s the way the word is mostly used, but it’s not really right. Helium, after all, is still very much a chemical, despite being stubbornly unreactive.

Possibly the best of the bunch is found in the Oxford Living Dictionary:
“A distinct compound or substance, especially one which has been artificially prepared or purified.”

Not bad. Well done Oxford. No mention of chemical reactions here – it’s just a substance. We do most often think of chemicals as things which have been “prepared” somehow. Which is fair enough, although it can lead to trouble. In particular, ridiculous references to “chemical-free” which actually mean “this alternative stuff is naturally-occurring.” (Except of course it often isn’t: see this article about baby wipes.) The implication, of course, is that thing in question is safe(r), but there are lots and lots of very nasty chemicals in nature: natural does not mean safe.

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Sometimes people will go the other way and say “everything is chemicals.” We know what this means, but it has its problems, too. Light isn’t a chemical. Sound isn’t a chemical. All right, those are forms of energy. What about neutrinos, then? Or a single proton? Or a single atom? Or, going the other way, some complicated bit of living (or once living) material? In one debate about this someone suggested to me that a “chemical was anything you could put in a jar,” at which point I pedantically said, “I keep coffee in a jar. Is that a chemical?” Obviously there are chemicals in coffee, it works from the “everything is chemicals” perspective, but it’s a single substance that’s not a chemical.

Language is annoying. This is why chemists like symbols and numbers so much.

Anyway, what have we learned? Firstly, something doesn’t necessarily have to be part of a chemical reaction to be a chemical. Secondly, we need to include the idea that it’s something with a defined composition (rather than a complex, variable mixture, like coffee), thirdly that chemical implies matter – light, sound etc don’t count, and fourthly that it also implies a certain quantity of stuff (we probably wouldn’t think of a single atom as a chemical, but collect a bunch together into a sample of gas and we probably would).

So with all that in mind, I think I shall go with:

So what IS a chemical?

A chemical is…

(Drum roll please….)

Any substance made of atoms, molecules and/or ions which has a fixed composition.

I’m not entirely convinced this is perfect, but I think it more or less works.

If you have a better idea, please do comment and let me know!

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8 Things Everyone Gets Wrong About ‘Scary’ Chemicals

scaryChemicals. The word sounds a little bit scary, doesn’t it? For some it probably conjures up memories of school, and that time little Joey heated something up to “see what would happen” and you all had to evacuate the building. Which was actually good fun – what’s not to love about an unplanned fire drill during lesson time?

But for others the word has more worrying associations. What about all those lists of additives in foods, for starters? You know, the stuff that makes it all processed and bad for us. Don’t we need to get rid of all of that? And shouldn’t we be buying organic food, so we can avoid ….

….Read the rest of this article at WhatCulture Science.

This is my first article for WhatCulture Science – please do click the link and read the rest!

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