The Wikipedia page for mercury says that it was named after the Roman god because of his speed and mobility. When did the name mercury start to be used to designate the metal?


3 Answers 3


Mercury was initially known Hydrargyros (in the times of Aristotle) and later known in its liquid state as Argenturn Vivurn translated “alive silver” or in English as “quicksilver" in the 4th century BCE.

The association of traditional metals with the planets dates already back to the 2th century CE (in a passage of Celsus preserved by Origenes [ContraCelsum, VI, 22] mercury gets associated with iron).

The first known mention of planet Mercury in association to Hydrargyros is found in a list by Stephanus of Alexandria from the 7th century: Sun-gold, Moon-silver, Mercury-quicksilver, Venus-copper, Mars-iron, Jupiter-tin, Saturn-lead.

Tracking exactly when "mercury" became more popular than its alternative name quicksilver is hard, as one will have to search for meaning. You can look at tables of alchemical symbols where elements are always associated with some astronomical body and quicksilver is represented by ☿ (Mercury). As pointed in the comments, mercury was one of the most important alchemical elements thought to be one of the main ingredients for the philosopher's stone, which allegedly turned normal metals into gold.

The pseudo-Geber in the 13-14th century (sometimes [mis]attributed to Arabic alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan or Geber from 9th century) in his Summa perfectionis magisterii refers to it as both mercury (Mercurio) and quicksilver (argento uiuo).

This table by Étienne François Geoffroy from 1718 of alchemical elements already uniquely refers to quicksilver as mercure (mercury in French). During the Chemistry Revolution, many chemical names were standardised. In 1787 Méthode de nomenclature chimique, Antoine Lavoisier, et al fixed the name of many elements and they chose to keep only the name mercure for the liquid metal.

Englishman John Dalton, seems to have adopted the French standard. When writing a list of elements in the early 1800, he referred to the liquid metal simply as mercury. Note that in some European languages, that did not catch on (in German is still called Quecksilber).

Some sources: Otto Raubenheimer, History of mercury (1912) and Yannis Almirantis The Paradox of the Planetary Metals (2005).

  • $\begingroup$ Association of metals with planets is very old indeed. But Mercury apparently changed its official name from Hydrargium to Mercury not so so long ago. $\endgroup$ Sep 14, 2021 at 19:30
  • $\begingroup$ Contrary to the non-sense in the Wikipedia link, Geber (or Jabir) was a real person. $\endgroup$
    – AChem
    Sep 14, 2021 at 21:15
  • $\begingroup$ Given the reference to the 1787 publication by Lavoisier et al., what were the reasons to retain "Hg" (a reference to the older name) for the chemical symbol? While this information is not needed to answer the question, it would round out the answer. $\endgroup$
    – njuffa
    Sep 14, 2021 at 21:35
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Geber (9th Century) was real, but "pseudo-Geber" is used by scholars to refer to a later writer (13-14th Century). $\endgroup$ Sep 14, 2021 at 21:53
  • $\begingroup$ @njuffa I will check. The usual convention is to use Latin, so it should be called either Av, Aq or Au (the latter is not possible). Maybe Greek was chosen to avoid confusion? $\endgroup$
    – Mauricio
    Sep 14, 2021 at 22:57

Mercury the metal (a.k.a quicksilver).

Usage in English ... the Oxford English Dictionary (subscription required) has an example in Chaucer (~1395):

And in amalgamyng and calcenyng Of quyk siluer, yclept Mercurie crude... Oure orpiment and sublymed Mercurie.

Probably we need to investigate this in other languages; the English usage may come from Latin?


Mercury is not the not only element which is named after the heavenly bodies, we have Uranium, Neptunium, Plutonium, Tellurium (Earth), Selenium (moon). It is not suprising then that ancient and modern chemists were fascinated by the objects in the sky. For a serious historical debate, one should not then focus only one element, we have to look at the whole picture. There are several excellent articles in the Journal of Chemical Education, see, Origin of the Names of Chemical Elements by Vivi Ringnes (Available from Google Scholar).

I show one Table from there. Alchemists

Historically then, mercury is the only element which retained its name, for unknown reasons. One may then ask, why copper is associated with Venus and lead with Saturn. Unfortunately, Wikipedia quality is really bad when it comes to chemical and mathematical history, so don't rely on Wikipedia explanations because it is highly biased by the writer. The problem is that it is open to editing by everyone (which is good and bad both ways). As you can see, Wikipedia's explanation for the name of mercury has no standing whatsoever. It is a conjecture.

For instance, we have a list,

$$ \begin{array}{ll} \text { Cerium } & \text { the asteroid Ceres } \\ \text { Helium } & \text { Gr., helios, the sun } \\ \text { Mercury } & \text { the planet Mercury } \\ \text { Neptunium } & \text { the planet Neptune } \\ \text { Palladium } & \text { the asteroid Pallas } \\ \text { Phosphorus } & \text { Gr., phosphoros, light-bearing; a name applied to the } \\ \text { planet Venus when appearing as a morning star } \\ \text { Plutonium } & \text { the planet Pluto } \\ \text { Selenium } & \text { Gr., Selene, moon } \\ \text { Tellurium } & \text { L., tellus, the earth } \\ \text { Uranium } & \text { the planet Uranus } \end{array} $$


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