A brief etymology of particle physics



How did the proton, photon and other particles get their names?

Over the years, physicists have given names to the smallest constituents of our universe.

This pantheon of particles has grown alongside progress in physics. Anointing a particle with a name is not just convenient; it marks a leap forward in our understanding of the world around us.

The etymology of particle physics contains a story that connects these sometimes outlandish names to a lineage of scientific thought and experiment.

So, without further ado, Symmetry presents a detailed guide to the etymology of particles—some we’ve found and others we have yet to discover.

Editor’s note: PIE, referenced throughout, refers to proto-Indo-European, one of the earliest known languages.

Discovered particles


Named by: William Whewell, 1834

Ions are atoms or molecules that are charged. The term “ion” was coined by 19th-century polymath William Whewell, who developed it for his contemporary Michael Faraday (see their correspondence) who made important discoveries in the realm of electromagnetism. “Ion» comes from the neuter present participle of Greek ienai, “go,” to describe the particle’s attraction, or tendency to move toward opposite charges. Ienai originates from the PIE ei, “to go, to walk.”

The suffix “-on” derives from “ion” and appears in the names of many particles.

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[ienaiἰέναι : απαρέμφατο ενεργητικού ενεστώτα του ρήματος εἶμι : έρχομαι, πηγαίνω]