We continue our exploration of noble gases in this month’s edition of Word Stories, looking at two more members of this close-knit family. Along with krypton, one of the subjects of September’s instalment, neon and xenon were discovered in the same year by the same chemists. What’s more, their names bear an uncanny resemblance. All three share an –on ending and have roots that revolve around a common theme: the unknown. Let’s learn more about them.
The chemical elements krypton, neon and xenon were all discovered in 1898 by the Scottish chemist William Ramsay (1852–1916) and the English chemist Morris William Travers (1872–1961). All three are “noble” or “inert gases”, characterized by a lack of odour and colour under normal conditions, and a low chemical reactivity.
As the story goes, the name neon was suggested by William George Ramsay, the 13-year-old son of Ramsay senior, during a discussion around the dinner table following the discovery of the element. The younger Ramsay suggested the Latin adjective novum, the neuter form of novus, meaning “new”. His father reportedly accepted the suggestion, provided that the Latin etymon be exchanged for a Greek one following previous choices helium (from hēlios“sun”), argon (from argos “inactive”) and krypton (from kruptos “hidden”). Neon (νέον), neuter of neos (νέος) “new” was chosen (as in neocolonialism). The discovery and naming was eventually confirmed by Ramsay (senior) and Travers in their June 16, 1898, seminal paper “On the Companions of Argon”, later published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London.
Neon takes on an orange-red glow when submitted to a strong electrical current, hence its application in commercial lighting. In the 1930s, the term neon started being used to mean all fluorescent lights and signs, regardless of the actual gas used. Other inert gases will yield other colours: lilac (argon), white (krypton), blue (xenon) and red-orange (helium). Expressions neon light, neon sign and neon tube are respectively attested in scientific or commercial texts from 1913 (“the neon light is physiologically excellent on account of its dull luminescence”), 1927 (“Neon signs overcome the handicap of high first cost by lowered current consumption”) and 1936 (in advertising: “the manufacture, erection, and maintenance of all neon tubes for advertising and display purposes”).
Xenon is a gas used nowadays in anesthesiology, optics and spectroscopy by nuclear magnetic resonance. As with krypton and neon, it was discovered in 1898 by the Scottish chemist William Ramsay and the English chemist Morris William Travers. For the naming of xenon, Ramsay suggested using the Ancient Greek adjective ksenos (also transliterated as xenos, from ξένος), meaning “strange, unusual” or “foreign, alien” (as inxenophobia); the _-on_ending denotes the neuter singular form of the adjective, ksenon (ξένον), and is a common ending for chemical elements. In Ancient Greek, ksenos can also be a noun, used in Greek literature, including in Homer’s Odyssey, to mean either “host”, “guest” or “stranger, foreigner”. Ramsay’s name choice likely referred to the fact that the xenon gas was so scarce in the Earth’s atmosphere as to seem otherworldly.
As expected, xenon’s first attestation in print is found in Ramsay and Travers’s seminal article announcing the discovery of the element. It was published in October 1898 in the Report of the Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The relevant passage, which conjointly mentions krypton, xenon and a third gas provisionally called “metargon” (later proved to be contaminated argon), reads as follows:
[…] The last fractions of liquefied argon show the presence of three new gases. These are krypton, a gas first separated from atmospheric air […]; metargon, a gas which shows a spectrum very closely resembling that of carbon monoxide […]; and a still heavier gas, which we have not hitherto described, which we propose to name “xenon”. […] Xenon appears to exist only in very minute quantity. (Ramsay and Travers, “On the extraction from air of the companions of argon and on neon”)