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I have studied the prefixes "Iso-", "Sec-", "Tert-" and "Neo-" for a long time in chemistry but wonder where they originate from i.e. where is the place (the paper or the journal) that they first appeared in the form that they are used today in modern-chemistry.

About the prefixes of "Neo-" and "Iso-", the earliest appearance of them I could find is by William Odling in his paper in 1876 cited below:

Altogether, however, the names which call to mind that the normal, iso-, and neo-acids are mono-, di-, and trimethyl &c. derivatives would seem to be most advantageous. [1]

[1] Odling, W. (1876). Formulation of Paraffins and their Derivatives. The London, Edinburgh and Dublin philosophical magazine and journal of science, ser.5:v.1 (Jan-June), 216.

Now, about the prefixes of "Sec-" and "Tert-", I could not find any definitive appearance of them (in the way we use them today) on any resource like - Wikipedia or OED. However, I did find the use of the words "tertiary" and "secondary" as they are used in modern-chemistry in several old sources dating back to the late 1800's. [2][3][4]

[2] Meyer, V. & Lecco, M. (1876). Zur Constitution der Ammo-niumverbindungen. Berichte der deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft , 8(2), 936-938.

[3] Stoermer, R. (1898). Ueber die Einwirkung von salpetriger Säure auf secundäre aromatische Amine. Berichte der deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft , 31(2), 2523-2541.

[4] Fischer, E. (1890). Synthese des Traubenzuckers. Berichte der deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft , 23(1), 799-805.

So, I want to ask about the first occurrence of these prefixes as used in modern-chemistry and if the sources I provided and searched on have any relation to the history and origin of these prefixes.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for viewing this question, any edit (in the form of improved formatting or correct factual data) is greatly appreciated! This was all the data and resources I could find from my research. $\endgroup$ Jan 17 at 9:49
  • $\begingroup$ Bhavya Jain, This Q&A in SE Chemistry is also relevant chemistry.stackexchange.com/questions/111078/… $\endgroup$
    – AChem
    Jan 18 at 11:41
  • $\begingroup$ @AChem Yes sir I did have a look on that specific Q&A which is why I was motivated to find the origins for all of these prefixes. Although there is no information about the origin of these prefixes (sec-, tert- and even iso-) that I mentioned. $\endgroup$ Jan 18 at 16:41
  • $\begingroup$ I also think that the origin of these prefixes may have some dependence on the fundamental ideas they represent. For example, 'iso-' (representing the isomer of the compound) may have originated between 1830, when Jöns Berzelius coined the term, and realistically before the century's end. Similarly, the prefixes 'tert-' and 'sec-' (representing the degree of carbon attachment) may have originated between 1857, when August Kekulé proposed tetravalency for carbon (allowing for 1°, 2°, 3°, & 4° carbons), and realistically the early 1900s. (This is just a hunch, and I may be totally off the mark). $\endgroup$ Jan 18 at 16:57
  • $\begingroup$ Bhavya Jain, I will write the response in a day or so. OED has the details on the first use in German and French. I am not sure which OED you used, the one I am using is the full version (> 22 volumes) and is not available online for free. $\endgroup$
    – AChem
    Jan 18 at 19:59

2 Answers 2

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OED, The unabridged Oxford English Dictionary has the earliest reference to your query.

tertiary

Applied to compounds regarded as being derived from ammonia by replacement of three hydrogen atoms by organic radicals, and to derivatives of such compounds; also extended to analogous derivatives of other elements, esp. phosphorus. [The sense is due to Gerhardt & Chiozza, who used French tertiaire (Compt. Rend. (1853) XXXVII. 88).]

Applied to organic compounds other than amines, etc. (see sense A.1b.i) in which the characteristic functional group is located on a saturated carbon atom which is itself bonded to three other carbon atoms. [Applied originally to alcohols by H. Kolbe, who used German tertiär (Ann. der Chem. u. Pharm. (1864) CXXXII. 104).]

secondary

Applied to compounds regarded as being derived from ammonia (†or water) by replacement of two hydrogen atoms by organic radicals (cf. primary adj. A.II.18b); also extended to analogous derivatives of other elements, esp. phosphorus. [The sense is due to Gerhardt & Chiozza, who used French secondaire (Compt. Rend. (1853) XXXVII. 88).]

Applied to organic compounds other than amines, etc. (see sense A.3l.i) in which the characteristic functional group is located on a saturated carbon atom which is itself bonded to two other carbon atoms. [Applied originally to alcohols by H. Kolbe, who used German secundär (Ann. der Chem. u. Pharm. (1864) CXXXII. 102).]

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you sir for your help in answering this question as well some of my previous questions and sharing your knowledge! I will wait to see if there are any other answers (and probably do an edit about the origin of prefixes like ortho, meta and para as I recently read an article on their history so to help people viewing this post in the future). $\endgroup$ Jan 23 at 23:51
  • $\begingroup$ Sir one last thing I wanted to ask is that is there any reference to the exact usage of these terms as prefixes(i.e. in their combining forms of "sec-" and "tert-" in any of the languages like - german, french or english) instead of the usage of the actual word itself? $\endgroup$ Jan 24 at 13:56
  • $\begingroup$ Bhavya Jain, I do not not know French or enough German to figure that out. $\endgroup$
    – AChem
    Jan 24 at 14:55
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After the answer and information from @AChem, I would like to add some additional information about the sources mentioned in the answer.

[1] Gerhardt, C. & Chiozza, L. (1853). Recherches sur les amides. Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l'Académie des sciences, XXXVII(July), 88.

[2] Kolbe, H. (1864). Ueber die seoundären Alkohole. Annalen der Chemie und Pharmacie, 132(1), 103.†


It is a bit confusing with how Kolbe mentions the notation "alcohols" in this paper which is listed below:

"One of the major difficulties in Kolbe’s formulas was that he refused to abandon equivalent weights for atomic weights until 1869, long after other chemists had adopted them. He still followed Berzelius in using the values C =6 and O = 8 (these refer to the atomic weights calculated by Berzelius), so that he had to double the number of atoms of these elements in his formulas —thus, his notation for the methyl group was C2H3, and hydrated carbonic acid became 2HO. C2O4." [3](text in bold added by me)

Also, if someone is also curious about the origin of some other prefixes like "ortho-", "meta-" & "para-" here is some information about them.

The prefixes "para-" and "meta-" first appeared in the 1830's (almost in the current sense today to represent "closely related compounds") with these prefixes being introduced by Berzelius [4](in 1830 to show the name "paratartaric acid") and Graham [5](in 1833 to show the name "metaphosphoric acid") respectively. About the prefix "ortho-", it first appeared in 1859 by Odling [6]to represent the acid corresponding to the (highest degree of hydration).

Finally, the use of all the three prefixes together was popularized by Körner [7](between the period of 1866-1874) to various isomers of disubstituted benzene. The first usage of the three prefixes(in the sense we know them today) was done by the Chemical Society of London in 1879[8](pg. 276-281).

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