I enjoyed Jeff Huber’s Newscripts article “Arsenic Sells, Molecules Tickle the Funny Bone” and always laugh at the creativeness exhibited by scientists in naming chemical molecules (C&EN, Oct. 17, page 80). In this article,Paul W. May is given credit for literally writing “the book” on molecules with funny names. May’s website is extensive and contains a humorous collection of curious names. I wish him continued success. It is not clear, however, if Huber was aware of earlier works that record the inventive names and terminology coined by chemists.
In 1987, Alex Nickon (Johns Hopkins University) and Ernest F. Silversmith (Morgan State University) published a book entitled “Organic Chemistry, the Name Game: Modern Coined Terms and Their Origins” on this very topic. The contents of their book detail many peculiar names of molecules found in the literature and of some molecule names that did not make it into the literature.
As a former graduate student of Nickon’s, I know both authors spent many years of patient and careful detective work combing the literature and following up with authors to obtain and confirm the background story as to why a molecule was christened with its particular name. Although their book takes a lighthearted look at the naming of molecules, these authors also attempted to accurately record the historical context surrounding the naming of these molecules. As the book was published before the widespread acceptance of the Internet, one can appreciate the amount of effort that went into contacting chemists worldwide by letter and phone to obtain the stories surrounding the various names found in the book.
By James A. Kenar