I had been wondering for a while when exactly we stopped calling chemicals things like "oil of vitriol" and started calling them things like "sulfuric acid". It's very romantic, but less than useful for, say, figuring out what the hell you're working with.

The question was answered incidentally, as so many of my questions are, by Oliver Sacks, in his memoir Uncle Tungsten, which is a charmingly off-kilter remembrance of his childhood in England and the many, many hazardous things he did with chemicals back then, because apparently the concept of safety hadn't been invented yet.

The answer is that we changed over in the late 1700s, due in large part to the efforts of a French chemist, one Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier. He knocked it down to Antoine Lavoisier, the name by which he is best known, after the Revolution. It didn't last long, unfortunately; he was unlucky enough to be born into the nobility, so as soon as the proletariat got around to making up something to charge him with, they did, and it was off with his head. Nobody has ever liked tax collectors, and the sans-culottes were no exception.

Conveniently, the lion's share of his argument for systematic chemical names were collected and printed in book form. I couldn't find it in the original French -- Méthode de nomenclature chimique -- but as it turns out, the Boston Public Library gives free access to online copies of the English version, Method of Chymical Nomenclature. It appears to be sourced from the British Library. You can convert to PDF and download it in chunks. Which I have obviously done, because I have a Kindle and God knows I always need things to read on the train.

It does take a bit of time to plow through an entire book writ upon the ſcience of chymiſtry wholly in the ſtyle of the late 18th c., and is ſpelt, punc͡tuated, &c., thuſly. I like this Lavoisier person, though. Intelligent fellow. Although it is a bit disconcerting to see him observe -- accurately -- that algebraic notation is a purpose-built artificial language not five pages after the guy who wrote the introduction has finished banging on about phlogiston.

I'm busy teching Mrs Hawking and Vivat Regina, for presentation at Arisia this year, but in the meantime, anything published in 1789 has been out of copyright for about 200 years, so here is Lavoisier's book, in 100pp chunks:

Method of Chymical Nomenclature, Part 1
Method of Chymical Nomenclature, Part 2
Method of Chymical Nomenclature, Part 3

Knock yerselves out.

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