Potasio is the “Spanishized” version of scientific Latin potassium, the form that English uses unchanged as the name of chemical element number 19. English had previously used the form potass, from French potasse. French had taken the word from Dutch potas, a compound of pot, which means the same as the identical English word, and as, which is a cognate of English ash. In fact English has the corresponding compound potash, a singular that was copied from the Dutch plural potaschen. Pot ashes, you see, were people’s original source of potassium.

It’s not a coincidence that English pot resembles Spanish pote, whose meanings include ‘pot, jar, mug, jug.’ Spanish took the word from Catalan pot, which, like French and English pot, ultimately traces back to Vulgar Latin *pottus, for which no prior source is known. Spanish pote gave rise to the alternate form bote, which designates various containers, including ‘a can, a jar, a tin.’

Coming back to potasio/potassium, whose etymology is easy enough to trace, one question may come to mind for anyone who has taken an elementary chemistry class: how did K come to be the chemical symbol for potassium? According to answers.com, “The chemical symbol K comes from kalium, the Mediaeval Latin word for potash, which may have been taken from the Arabic word qali, meaning alkali.”

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim in IA
    Feb 28, 2014 @ 13:16:25

    I’ve always liked the symbol for Lead as Pb. Have you done that one in your origins series?


  2. shoreacres
    Mar 01, 2014 @ 07:37:48

    Early this morning I listened to quite a heated discussion on the outdoor show about “pot-lickers” — the fishermen’s slang term for people who wait until they see someone else catching fish, then come over and try to move in on the action. Needless to say, pot-lickers are not held in high esteem.


  3. zachary
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 20:37:57

    I’m from the USA but live in Chile so live in both worlds and sometimes also notice similarities / differences in the two languages. One of the classics is when native spanish speakers say “I pretend to…” in english, trying to use ‘Pretender’. Nice site, will be reading. Feel free to stop by my page to stay hi. Take care !


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Mar 02, 2014 @ 20:53:27

      Yes, there are quite a few “false friends” like pretender/pretend, which look similar and are sometimes even historically the same word, but which now have different meanings in the two languages. A few others are asistir/assist, éxito/exit, arena, and actual.


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If you encounter an unfamiliar technical term in any of these postings, check the Glossary in the bar across the top of the page.

©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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