How did oxygen get its name?


Quick Answer

The name oxygen was coined by Antoine Lavoisier in the 18th century, and is a combination of two Greek words: oxy, which means acid, and gene, which means creates. At the time oxygen was discovered, Lavoisier mistakenly believed it was a necessary component to making acids.

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Full Answer

Oxygen has been discovered more often than perhaps any other element. What was later determined to be oxygen was produced by multiple chemists throughout the early years of chemistry, though none recognized the presence of the element. Joseph Priestley isolated oxygen in his laboratory in 1774, and around the same time, Carl Wilhelm Scheele also produced oxygen independently.

The different names given to the element reflect confusion over its role in chemical interactions with other elements. Priestley called oxygen dephlogisticated air, which reflects the then-current belief that a mysterious substance, known as phlogiston, was a necessary component of combustion. Scheele called the element "fire air" in reference to oxygen's obvious role in combustion. Eventually, Antoine Lavoisier examined the process of producing pure oxygen in his lab and correctly identified the gas he created as a new element. Unfortunately, Lavoisier had limited experience with the chemistry of acids, which led him to the fallacious belief that all acids are built around oxygen groups.

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