**Why downvoted? I think the good answers I got indicate that it was a reasonable question and beyond the ability of a beginner in Chinese such as myself to research online. Maybe this can be explained so I can ask better questions in the future. **

In every language I know, the word clearly means pretty much the English equivalent: "water" and "origin" -- German is something like "water" "component" and Russian seems closer to English.

So I would have expected that the character for the element would be two separate characters, one of which is "water" and the other something like "root" etc. but it is a single character. (In Japanese it appears to emulate the English with indeed two characters, one of which is "water")

Did Chinese attempt to create single character names for scientific words? Did Chinese at one time have a two-character name for hydrogen?

  • I just wanted to point out that hydrogen is originally greek origin hydro+gennas, making water. This was mostly directly adopted into latin and so on. The further you get from latin/greek influences on language the far less likely you are to see those same naming patterns. 氫 is named after the weight and gas state, in the same pattern as all periodic elements in chinese.
    – zagrycha
    Dec 21, 2022 at 7:38
  • @zagrycha sounds like chars for elements are very new, maybe after mao?
    – releseabe
    Dec 21, 2022 at 8:01
  • a few of the current standard periodic element names pre-existed, but most are brand new (or newly altered) less than 5 years ago... actually maybe a little more than 5 years ago now as time flies. For reference many devices can't even properly show some of the periodic characters (including my newest iphone or macs). To be clear, a few were even older than that but any characters not already in use as their established probably came into use long after mao's time.
    – zagrycha
    Dec 21, 2022 at 9:23
  • @zagrycha: were roman letters used before the new characters? i consider it remarkable that the symbols for elements are so new.
    – releseabe
    Dec 21, 2022 at 9:33
  • its too late to edit but I should clarify about 80 I think common elements existed earlier, maybe the 40s? I realized my "a few" may be misleading too late. Adding on in response to your reply that just came through: there were unofficial names before the current names as needed, just sometimes causing confusion etc. Or to say it even better, there were many previously accepted terms that are now unofficial compared to the standard.
    – zagrycha
    Dec 21, 2022 at 9:34

2 Answers 2


If not already existing, Chinese coin new characters or borrow old characters to denote elements. Hydrogen is a coined one.

It’s neither transliterated nor translated. Chinese named this element as 輕(qing1) since it’s has the smallest unit weight. Later, the Chinese element names were regulated to show their form in the room temperature. It’s a gas, so 气 is added and the 輕 part is simplified to 坙. The character 氫 is coined while the sound qing1 is kept.

One character is always used instead of two for hydrogen.

Side note: the simplified 气 was the original form of the word, while the traditional 氣 was derived from it later.


氫 is a partial transliteration of [hy]drogen, not a translation. It is also a specially coined character that has no other use besides being the noun for "hydrogen" (element) in Chinese

Did Chinese attempt to create single-character names for scientific words? Did Chinese at one time have a two-character name for hydrogen?

No, They only coined new characters for some elements and most are based on transliterations

  • what do you mean by transliteration? i understand the term in the context of alphabets but what does it mean with chinese characters?
    – releseabe
    Dec 20, 2022 at 12:38
  • 氫 is a Chinese-created new word just for 'hydrogen'. It doesn't have other meanings It just sounds like the beginning of hydrogen (more so in Cantonese /hing1/ than Mandarin /qing1/
    – Tang Ho
    Dec 20, 2022 at 13:21
  • Chinese has the sound hai. Transliteration would have chosen it instead.
    – lilysirius
    Dec 20, 2022 at 13:45

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