How Did Nitrogen Get Its Name?

The chemical element, nitrogen, was formally named by the French chemist Jean-Antoine Claude Chaptal when he discovered that it is a primary component of potassium nitrate, also known as nitre. The name of nitrogen is derived from the combination of the two Greek words "nitron" and "genes," meaning niter forming.

Nitrogen is a colorless non-metallic element that commonly exists in nature as the diatomic gas, N2. It comprises the bulk of breathable air at 78 percent of the total volume. Nitrogen is an important biological component used in the synthesis of nucleic acids and proteins. These macro-molecules drive essential life processes for the continued survival of organisms.

Nitrogen was discovered in 1772 by the Scottish physician and chemist Daniel Rutherford. However, it was not until 1790 that the element acquired its modern name. Other scientists have previously conducted studies that demonstrated the properties of nitrogen but were unable to deduce that it was a unique element. In 1786, the French chemist Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier separated nitrogen from the air and named it azote, which means "without life," due to its inert characteristics. The term comes from the Greek words "a" and "zoe." It was Chaptal who proposed the name nitrogenium, which is the Latin form of the combined Greek terms nitron and gennan, or genes. Nitrogenium was then shortened to nitrogen.