How many alkali metals can you name?
If the answer is none, your high school chemistry class let you down. There’s an answer to this question hiding in plain sight.
Alkali metals are in the leftmost column on the Periodic Table of Elements (except for the one-proton-big Hydrogen, an unusual case). We call them “alkali metals” because we discovered Potassium first.
Knowing about Potassium
What is the connection between “Potassium” (a virtue of bananas, you may recall) and “alkali” metals? The word “potassium” derived from the ashes of certain plants that people soaked in pots, i.e., “pot ash.” We then added the suffix for metals, “ium.”
One of the most useful plants for that whole process was Kali. Even though an English chemist’s formulation of “potassium” prevailed as a name for the element, a preeminent Swedish chemist’s favoring of “kali” wound up immortalized in the familiar symbol for the element: K. “Kali” finally transformed into “Alkali” after the influence of Arabic chemistry contributing their definite article (“Al” meaning “the”) to the word.
Most people are more familiar with Potassium than they would be with, say, Thorium or Hassium. Most people also know that its symbol is K. “Name an alkali metal” would still catch them flat-footed because this straightforward connection, broadcast with the relatively uncommon letter “K,” never showed up in their education.
One has to wonder, why not? Knowing one of the alkali metals is fun, but it has limited application. The larger question of the dearth of etymology in education has far-reaching implications, however.
Why Things Are Named
Etymology, why things are named what they are, is not mere trivia. Giving the reasons behind words and making connections offer powerful ways to remember information. They are great study aids—so why isn’t this perspective institutionalized? Grade schools are primarily concerned with communicating raw information. Why isn’t it de rigueur for those teachers in particular to include etymologies that explain and make memorable systems?
Alkali metals are just one instance of etymological gold mines. To give another example, no math class ever explained to me that we call some numbers “irrational” because they cannot be expressed as a ratio of two integers.
The Punic Wars, whose name is routinely explained, seem like an exception to the rule. Perhaps they were so obviously strangely named that teachers figured they had to explain why. If you don’t recall, the Punic Wars, which were waged between Rome and Carthage, were so christened because Carthage had originally been colonized by Phoenicians. Their name was then corrupted to “Punic” in the language of the Romans. Familiarity with this story feels like the exception rather than the rule, however
I don’t know why teachers aren’t routinely trained to investigate etymologies and pass them on to their students. If this isn’t something teachers learn while pursuing education degrees in college, it should be customary on-the-job advice. Teaching etymology is the sorcerer’s stone in education where less is more. Magically, it takes students less effort to remember more information, because of how it all hangs together. The sooner students learn the right names for things, the easier it will be for them to make sense of things as a whole and to advance to more complicated material. It should be more widely practiced.