Chemists deal with lots of strange-sounding materials like sodium, ytterbium, and potassium hexacyanoferrate(III), so they’ve developed a system of symbols and formulas to represent these materials. The elements of the periodic table all have one- or two- letter symbols*. In some cases the symbol obviously descends from the element’s name; to wit, the symbol for oxygen is O, the symbol for titanium is Ti, and the symbol for chlorine is Cl.

Some elements – particularly the elements that have been known since antiquity – have symbols that do not seem logically connected to their name. In these cases, the symbol usually refers to an older name for the element, perhaps from Latin or Greek. For example, the symbol for sodium, Na, comes from the Latin word natrium. The word natrium has an even deeper, richer history among the alchemists and scholars of the ancient world, or so says Elementymology & Elements Multidict, a most fascinating site if you’ve got a few minutes to spare. At any rate, in 1807, Sir Humphrey Davy isolated the metal and recognized it as a distinct element. Bucking centuries of tradition, Sir Davy decided the metal ought to be named sodium, for he isolated it from caustic soda (now known as lye or sodium hydroxide).

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So what about sodium hypobromite? Sodium hypobromite is a compound that contains sodium, bromine, and oxygen. Bromine and oxygen combine to form a group called a polyatomic ion. Since this group has an overall negative charge, it bonds quite easily with positively-charged sodium ions.

Bromine is fairly versatile as far as bonding with oxygen goes; there are actually several polyatomic ions made of bromine and oxygen. They are distinguished by the number of oxygen atoms bonded to the bromine atom, and by small variations in their names. Here are four compounds that can be made from the same three elements, and their names:

NaBrO = sodium hypobromiteNaBrO2 = sodium bromiteNaBrO3 = sodium bromateNaBrO4 = sodium perbromate

If one isn’t too picky about capitalization, one could read NaBrO as “Na, bro”, meaning “No, close male associate (or perhaps my biological brother), I do not wish to hear a joke concerning sodium hypobromite.” Of course, the person already indicated his disinterest in hearing a joke about sodium. Perhaps this fellow simply isn’t in the mood for chemistry-themed jokes. We’ve all had days like that.

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*Some periodic tables have three-letter symbols for the last few elements. These symbols represent temporary names. When the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, or IUPAC, assigns permanent names to these elements, they will get a traditional one- or two-letter symbol to go along with their name.