Electron orbitals are referred to as s, p, d and f. I have read that there was a Latinate basis for this, but never found anything more specific. (Obviously, the discovery of electron orbitals by Bohr et. al. post-dated the fall of the Roman Empire by nearly 1500 years, so I realize that any such naming convention, if ancient Greek or Latin, would have been inspirational rather than originally sourced.)


1 Answer 1


The basis is actually German, not Latinate. They stand for:
scharf (sharp),
prinzipal (principal),
diffus (diffuse), and
fundamental (fundamental).

You might be interested in this, The Origin of the s, p, d, f Orbital Labels, which is a short essay by the historian of chemistry William Jensen.

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    $\begingroup$ I have read the linked article. The author does not actually say that these letters stand for English words. He does indicate that they were first used by the Swedish physicist Rydberg in an article published in French in 1890 and then adopted by a number of German scientists writing in German in the early part of the 20th century. At that time English was not the language of international science and it is difficult to believe that these Swedish and German scientists would have invented an English-based terminology. $\endgroup$
    – fdb
    Commented Dec 13, 2014 at 11:49
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    $\begingroup$ @EllieKesselman. Scharf, prinzipal, diffus, fundamental. "Pure English", as David H calls it. $\endgroup$
    – fdb
    Commented Dec 14, 2014 at 0:01
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    $\begingroup$ @fdb Thank you! Pure German then? Is that the genesis of s, p, d and f then? Specifically, scharf, prinzipal, diffus, fundamental? Or is there further nuance? $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 14, 2014 at 0:31
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    $\begingroup$ These are the terms used by (for example) Haas 1924: books.google.co.uk/… $\endgroup$
    – fdb
    Commented Dec 14, 2014 at 0:40
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    $\begingroup$ David, would you mind editing your answer to contain or point to the comments by @fdb? $\endgroup$
    – hjhjhj57
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 20:56

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