Chemistry International Blank Image
Chemistry International Text Image Link to Chemistry International Blank Image Chemistry International Blank Image Chemistry International Blank Image
Chemistry International Blank Image
Chemistry International Blank Image
Chemistry International Text Image Link to Current Issue
Chemistry International Text Image Link to Past Issues
Chemistry International Text Image Link to Officer's Columns
Chemistry International Text Image Link to Features
Chemistry International Blank Image
Chemistry International Text Image Link to Up for Discussion
Chemistry International Text Image Link to IUPAC Wire
Chemistry International Text Image Link to Project Place
Chemistry International Text Image Link to imPACt
Chemistry International Text Image Link to Bookworm
Chemistry International Text Image Link to Internet Connections
Chemistry International Text Image Link to Conference Call
Chemistry International Text Image Link to Where 2B and Y
Chemistry International Text Image Link to Symposia
Chemistry International Text Image Link to CI Indexes
Chemistry International Text Image Link to CI Editor
Chemistry International Text Image Link to Search Function
Chemistry International Text Image Link to Information


Chemistry International Text Image Link to Previous Issue Chemistry International Text Image Link to Previous Page Chemistry International Text Image Link to This TOC Chemistry International Text Image Link to Next Page Chemistry International Text Image Link to Next Issue

Vol. 27 No. 4
July-August 2005

Up for Discussion | A forum for members and member organizations to share ideas and concerns.
Send your comments by e-mail to [email protected]

Wolfram vs. Tungsten

The following piece includes both an expression of concern over the name of the element W (atomic number 74) and a formal response formulated on behalf of the editors of the 2005 edition of the IUPAC Nomenclature of Inorganic Chemistry.*

by Pilar Goya and Pascual Román

Both of the names wolfram and tungsten have traditionally been used for the element with atomic number 74. The authors would like to express their concern about leaving only one name.

In the last revision of the Red Book the name wolfram has been removed from the table and so have the terms wolframate, wolframy, and so on. For the element with atomic number 74, with symbol W, the only name left is tungsten, together with the corresponding forms tungstate, tungsty, etc. In fact, the only reference to the original name of the element is a footnote indicating “the element symbol W derives from the name wolfram.”

The rule of leaving only one name and a footnote for those elements that had a second name in brackets cannot be applied in this case because the name is directly linked to the discovery of the element. It does not refer to a Latin root, as in antimony, copper, gold, iron, lead, mercury, potassium, silver, sodium, and tin.

Therefore, as IUPAC members and on behalf of most Spanish chemists, we would like to bring this issue up for discussion and request the name wolfram be maintained based on the following reasons:

  • If we turn to historical facts, it is well documented and generally accepted, that the true discoverers of element 74 were J.J. Delhuyar and F. Delhuyar who were the first to isolate the pure metal from wolframite (Fe,Mn)WO4 in Spain in 1783 (see below).
  • It is also a fact that C.W. Scheele and T.O. Bergman were the first to obtain the trioxide (WO3) from scheelite (CaWO4) two years before, but they did not isolate the pure element.
  • The word wolfram derives from the German wolf’s rahm, literally meaning wolf´s foam or spuma lupi, which is how wolframite was traditionally known by the saxon miners. The pure element was isolated from wolframite. Tungsten is derived from the Swedish tung (heavy) and sten (stone) meaning heavy stone in reference to the mineral scheelite from which the trioxide was isolated.
  • Since the symbol of the element is W it is logical and self-explanatory that it derives from wolfram and not from tungsten. It usually has been acceptable to use the name proposed by those who isolated the element itself and not compounds containing the element in their formula, as is the case of the trioxide.
  • On page 88 of the original scientific paper published in 1783 by the Delhuyar brothers1 they claim the name volfram as follows:
    — “We will call this new metal volfram, taking the name from the matter of which it has been extracted…. This name is more suitable than tungust or tungsten which could be used as a tribute to tungstene or heavy stone from which its lime was extracted, because volfram is a mineral which was known long before the heavy stone, at least among the mineralogists, and also because the name volfram is accepted in almost all European languages, including Swedish.”
    (Note that at that time, the letter “w” did not exist in the Spanish alphabet, but appeared for the first time in 1914 and is now included).

On the basis of all the above, we cannot understand why the name wolfram has been definitely removed from the table, and we claim that the name proposed by its discoverers, which had been accepted since the beginning by the scientific community, should be kept following the Delhuyar brothers’ wishes.

This is not the first time this issue has been raised. Many Spanish chemists have defended the name wolfram for years.2,3 In reference textbooks it can be read: “The name ‘wolfram’, from which the symbol of the element is derived, is still widely used in the German literature and is recommended by IUPAC, but the allowed alternative ‘tungsten’ is used in the English-speaking world.”4

In short, many voices have been raised in favor of wolfram. According to R. Hoffmann and O. Sacks, “future generations of chemists will be bewildered at the symbol.” On the basis of all this, we propose that in the table of the elements the name wolfram appear together with tungsten.

*Nomenclature of Inorganic Chemistry—IUPAC Recommendations 2005, edited by Neil G. Connelly and Ture Damhus (senior editors), Richard Hartshorn, and Alan Hutton; in press by the Royal Society of Chemistry, 2005 [ISBN 0-85404-438-8]. This publication has been subject to an extended review, including a public review that occured in 2004. In IUPAC circles, this book (including former editions) is commonly referred to as the Red Book.

1. J.J. De Luyart and F. De Luyart, Extractos de las Juntas Generales celebradas por la Real Sociedad Bascongada de los Amigos del País, pp. 46–88, Vitoria, Septiembre 1783.
2. E. Moles, Anales, 1928, 26, 234–252.
3. P. Román, Anales RSEQ, 2000, 96(3), 35–45.
4. N.N. Greenwood and E. Earnshaw, Chemistry of the Elements, (2nd edition), p. 1002 ed, Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford, 1997.

Pilar Goya is a research professor at the Instituto de Química Médica, CSIC, Madrid, Spain, and the Spanish representative in the IUPAC-UAC Committee. Pascual Román is a professor at the Universidad del País Vasco, Bilbao, Spain.

Reply from Ture Damhus

On behalf of the editors of the 2005 Red Book, I would like to reply to the inquiry of Professors Goya and Román.

One must first realize that IUPAC nomenclature recommendations are issued in, and intended for use in, the official language(s) of the union. When the 1957 rules (i.e., the first edition of the Red Book) appeared, those languages were English and French. Today, the one official language is, and has been for many years, English. (This was reconfirmed by unanimous vote at the 2001 Council in Brisbane.)

This requirement has been understood as a working condition for the group preparing the 2005 recommendations. The purpose of Table 1 therein, entitled “Names, Symbols and Atomic Numbers of the Elements,” is thus to give element names for use in the English language. This is stated explicitly in Chapter 3 of the revised text.

IUPAC is often criticized for not doing enough to simplify nomenclature. It is particularly important to avoid the proliferation of names in something as fundamental to nomenclature as the naming of elements. Therefore, Table 1 in the revised Red Book gives only one name for each element.

When comparing this table with the corresponding table in the 1990 recommendations, we see that the old table contained a number of additional element names cited in parentheses, including wolfram. Unfortunately, the part of the main text referring to the parenthetical names made it rather unclear what the reason was for citing each of these names. The text stated clearly that they are not used in English—a fact making them, logically speaking, irrelevant for IUPAC nomenclature—but proceeded to say that they were mentioned either because they provided the basis of the atomic symbol, had entered into chemical nomenclature, or were IUPAC-approved alternatives. However, a name not used in English cannot “have entered into nomenclature,” if this is understood as IUPAC-approved nomenclature, and cannot be an IUPAC-approved alternative. This is, therefore, a self-contradiction, which the new recommendations should seek to avoid. (In fact, the unfortunate text just cited was copied into the revised Red Book, albeit there referring to the footnotes rather than parenthetical names in the table itself. However, it is still contradictory and must be reworded, and we are grateful to Goya and Román for having caused us to reconsider this wording.)

The introduction to the 1957 rules expressed the hope that changes could be kept to a minimum when translating the recommended nomenclature into other languages, but at the same time acknowledged that certain names would be unacceptable in some languages. This certainly applies to a number of element names, including tungsten. For example, “wolfram” is also used in Denmark; however, I do not consider this a problem when adapting IUPAC nomenclature to Danish. And even if the revised Red Book repeats the trivial truth that “it is desirable that the names used in other languages differ as little as possible,” I think it is safe to predict that IUPAC will not interfere with national nomenclatures for the time being.

It must be stressed, and has been stressed repeatedly in the last three versions of the Red Book, including the present revision, that the choice of an IUPAC name for an element is not intended to have any implications regarding the priority for discovery of the element. According to current rules for naming new elements,1 the acknowledged discoverers are given the first opportunity to suggest a name for consideration by IUPAC, but the final decision about the name still lies with IUPAC (ultimately with the Council). So, in our time the Delhuyar brothers might have proposed wolfram, and we might have ended up having that as the IUPAC name. But we cannot use that rule for a long-known element like tungsten, against prevailing usage in English.

It is correct that if the name wolfram is not used in nomenclature, students will have to learn some history of chemistry to know why the element symbol is W. Tungsten shares this, of course, with a number of other elements, such as potassium, mercury, and silver. There are other reasons in those other cases, but it will remain the privilege of teachers and textbooks, not IUPAC nomenclature recommendations, to tell future students the details of how that came about in each case.

The remaining issue to discuss is the derived names. In fact, for anions with tungsten as the central atom, the 1970 Red Book prescribed the use of wolframate, not tungstate. The 1990 Red Book listed wolframate as “an allowed alternative to tungstate” (in the oxoanions Table 9.2 there), but in Table VIII gave tungstide with no alternative. There was a similar situation with antimony/antimonide/antimonate/stibate.

For the revised Red Book, we want to select just one “ate” name for each element. Obviously, the easiest situation is to have all derived names formed from the element name, if possible. At the same time, there is a general desire to take common usage into account if this is compatible with the systematics of the nomenclature one is developing. This has been repeatedly mentioned in the Red Books. In the case of tungsten we believe that tungstate is the prevailing term used at this time in English. (It is, for example, used by the textbook mentioned by Profs. Goya and Román and other well-known books on inorganic chemistry.) We have therefore agreed on tungsten/ tungstide/tungstate.

The last issue is the prefix to be used in the additive chains and rings names already presented in Red Book II.2 There, that prefix was “wolframy.” This nomenclature has not yet been widely adopted, particularly not for transition-metal compounds (where the coordination-type additive names are well-established and usually easily applied), so we decided that the advantage of maintaining the systematic approach and changing the prefix to “tungsty” would outweigh the disadvantage of having to retract from an earlier IUPAC recommendation.

To summarize, Profs. Goya and Román have highlighted an example of having to make non-trivial choices when devising nomenclature recommendations. We believe that if one wishes to control proliferation of alternatives, be as systematic as possible, and at the same time do not ignore prevailing usage in English —the language in which we have agreed to provide our recommendations— we have made the right choices regarding tungsten/wolfram and names derived from these. At the same time, the Spanish, the Danes, and many other nationalities, may happily continue to use wolfram in their locally adapted IUPAC nomenclatures.

1. Naming of New Elements, W.H. Koppenol, Pure Appl. Chem., 74, 787–791 (2002).
2. Nomenclature of Inorganic Chemistry II, IUPAC Recommendations 2000. J.A. McCleverty and N.G. Connelly, Royal Society of Chemistry, 2001.

Ture Damhus (Denmark) is a titular member on both the IUPAC Chemical Nomenclature and Structure Representation Division and the Interdivisional Committee on Terminology, Nomenclature and Symbols.

Page last modified 21 July 2005.
Copyright © 2003-2005 International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.
Questions regarding the website, please contact [email protected]
Link to CI Home Page Link to IUPAC E-News Link to IUPAC Home Page