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Vol. 34 No. 6
November-December 2012

Conference Call | Reports from recent conferences and symposia 
See also

What’s in a Name? Possibly Death and Taxes!

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

—Benjamin Franklin, 13 November 1789

It may appear something of a leap from this statement to nomenclature, but nomenclature can be tied to both of Benjamin Franklin’s certainties . . . In the absence of nomenclature, the inability to identify a compound and consequently to find and examine material safety data sheets could lead to an accident, or perhaps prevent selection of appropriate treatment or clean-up procedures in the event of a mishap.

Alternatively, having an appropriate name for a compound can be vital to taxation and application of duties. Without a name it is impossible to decide whether a duty should be applied and at what level it might be appropriate (e.g., for a pharmaceutical or a commercial commodity). An extra complication in this case is one of language—different names are used in different languages, and means must be available for translation. This was developed in the article “Customs, Chemistry, and IUPAC: An Old Story” (March-April 2009 CI).

One might think it unlikely that Benjamin Franklin would have had nomenclature in mind when he wrote his well-known comment to Jean Baptiste Le Roy, a fellow scientist, known for his work on electricity, but perhaps it would be hasty to rule it out. After all, Franklin was something of a polymath, the strength of the relationship between the fledgling United States of America and France is well-known, and Franklin served as Ambassador to France for many years. It seems certain that Franklin followed Lavoisier’s work closely and, in a 1788 letter to Lavoisier’s wife and scientific collaborator, he expresses his thanks for Antoine Lavoisier’s gift of his recent book on chemical nomenclature. Indeed, Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier served together on a commission conducting a scientific inquiry into Dr. Mesmer’s claims of medical cures and body control through the use of “animal magnetism” that was ordered by the King of France in 1784. The following quote expresses the importance that Lavoisier attached to nomenclature, so perhaps Benjamin Franklin would, indeed, have seen how nomenclature might be tied to his certainties in life:

“The impossibility of separating the nomenclature of a science from the science itself, is owing to this, that every branch of physical science must consist of three things; the series of facts which are the objects of the science, the ideas which represent these facts, and the words by which these ideas are expressed. Like three impressions of the same seal, the word ought to produce the idea, and the idea to be a picture of the fact. And, as ideas are preserved and communicated by means of words, it necessarily follows that we cannot improve the language of any science without at the same time improving the science itself; neither can we, on the other hand, improve a science, without improving the language or nomenclature which belongs to it.”

—Antoine Lavoisier, Elements of Chemistry, 1790

These historical notes perhaps provide some context for the two-day nomenclature workshop On Chemical Names and their Translation, organized by the European Commission’s Directorate General Taxation and Customs Union, Directorate General Translation and Belgium Customs and Excise Administration, that was held on 17-18 November 2011 within the frame of the International Year of Chemistry.

More than 80 delegates from EU taxation and customs authorities, translation departments, international organizations, and universities met for a workshop in Brussels, with a substantial portion of the content being provided by IUPAC delegates from the Division of Chemical Nomenclature and Structure Representation. The venue, the Atomium, was highly appropriate to a workshop with a focus on a key aspect of chemistry (the Atomium was the main pavilion and icon of the 1958 World Fair of Brussels, it represents an elementary iron crystal enlarged 165 billion [thousand million] times).

The Atomium in Brussels.

As outlined above, there is a great need to establish common rules for nomenclature in order to facilitate trade and enforce regulations related to the import and export of commodities. For customs officials, different names mean different products; they cannot be blamed, they are not chemists. To take a very simple example, o-cresol, ortho-cresol, and 1,2-cresol might be considered three different products. It must be admitted also that nomenclatures are voluminous and almost unreadable for the common citizen (not to say even for most chemists).

A key role for IUPAC, therefore, is the development of clear nomenclature rules for naming compounds, and IUPAC has been doing this since it was first established. The much more recent work on the development of Preferred IUPAC Names (PINs) is a further refinement that will be very useful to organisations involved in trade. This work will identify one systematic or retained name for regulatory use – there are often several systematic and unambiguous names for a given compound that can be formed using different, but still acceptable nomenclature methods.

A nevertheless perturbing example for customs officials:

  • copper(II) acetate monohydrate
  • dicopper(II) tetraacetate dihydrate
  • tetrakis(µ-acetato-κ2O,O’)bis[(aqua)copper(II)]

A second issue that is of great importance to the EU is that of translation of names. IUPAC nomenclature is developed and provided in English. Other languages mostly use IUPAC nomenclature as a basis, but numerous situations arise where the grammar and structure of a language is incompatible with a particular aspect of an IUPAC name. Typically the IUPAC recommendations for nomenclature in a particular area of chemistry are translated into other languages by national bodies such as chemical societies, but this is only done for a subset of languages, and nowhere near the number of languages that are used within the EU (currently 23 and regularly new Member States bring new languages to the list).

An example of a simple chemical name in all the current EU languages:


ethyl acetate





етил ацетат



acetato di etile

















οξικό αιθύλιο



octan etylu


acetato de etilo



acetato de etilo





acetat de etil







acetate d’éthyle



etil acetat


aicéatáit eitile




That means that an organization such as the European Commission has to provide a mechanism to establish the equivalence of names that might be provided in different languages. A software package to achieve this task is currently under redevelopment (the first translation module was developed beginning of the 1980s), and part of the workshop was allocated to presenting the challenges of translation of chemical names and outlining progress in this area.

The first day of the workshop contained an overview of general principles of nomenclature and other kinds of chemical names. More detailed sessions covered the nomenclature of organic chemistry (the Blue Book), inorganic chemistry (the Red Book), and polymer nomenclature (the Purple Book). These sessions were delivered by IUPAC specialists, mostly coauthors of the IUPAC books and from EU countries. The presentations were highly appreciated by the participants, many of them discovering or rediscovering the nomenclatures, and realizing also that IUPAC nomenclatures become rapidly a matter for specialists or computers. In this sense, the IUPAC International Chemical Identifier (InChI) and the naming with software were also introduced.

Day two dealt with translation of names, the complexities that can arise in nomenclature when dealing with translation, and the software that is being developed to assist with this process. All of the presentations were illustrated with detailed examples of the ways that names are put together, and later talks examined the variations that can occur when the subtleties of other languages result in changes to either the detail or the structure of a name.

In particular, the study realized by the chemical software company ACD/Labs UK Ltd. to develop the translation rules and the dictionary in all the EU languages revealed some important difficulties in the chemical nomenclature itself. The main difficulty is certainly a concatenation of words in many EU languages like in German. If it is easy to recognize the two parts in the name “Ethylacetat”, but it becomes rapidly difficult to recognize the different parts in more complex cases. A development of general convention to distinguish name parts for such languages would be very important both for nomenclature and practical use of chemical names.

Example of a confusing translation due to concatenation: Ethylmethylpropandioat

To an end, European Commission’s Directorate General Taxation and Customs Union is currently finalizing the development of the translation software with the results of the finished study and a new study will start soon to continue the work. Help is more than welcome. While this new study will obviously focus on European languages, IUPAC could consider the extension of this work to non-European languages as it would help to disseminate the “IUPAC color books”.

The proceedings of the workshop as well as more information on the European Customs Inventory of Chemical Substances (ECICS) and its translation module can be obtained at
or from Hervé Schepers <[email protected]>.

Richard M. Hartshorn <[email protected]> is president of the IUPAC Division of Chemical Nomenclature and Structure Representation (Division VIII) and Hervé Schepers <[email protected]> is at the European Commission, DG Taxation and Customs Union.

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