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Where did the Hydrogen Symbol Come From?

Ever wonder where the symbol for hydrogen came from? At Horizon Educational we’re committed to expanding hydrogen knowledge around the world. That’s why we’ve created this guide to help you understand everything there is to know about the origin of the hydrogen symbol.

Where did the word ‘hydrogen’ originate from? Why is the letter ‘H’ while elements like gold have a symbol ‘Au’? And why does the hydrogen symbol have the number 1 next to it? Below you’ll find a complete history of everything to do with the hydrogen symbol – from its origins in Latin script to its current place in the periodic table.


Hydrogen’s Place in the Periodic Table

Hydrogen is the first element in the periodic table. Why? Because hydrogen has only 1 proton in its atom and 1 electron in its outer shell, it’s given an atomic number of one.

This is why it’s placed at the top left of the periodic table, right above Lithium (Li). As we examine elements further down the period table, notice they have higher numbers in the top left. This means they have a higher atomic number, with more protons in their nuclei.


hydrogen periodic table


Origins of the symbol ‘H’

The earlier symbols in the periodic table come from classical Latin and Greek words. The symbol ‘H’ therefore stands for hydrogen, coming from the Greek elements hydro- and -gen, meaning 'water-forming'. This is why some elements have a symbol that doesn’t match their name. ‘K’, for Potassium, stands for the Latin kalium.

While these might seem confusing at first (why would Fe stand for Iron?), by learning the original Latin or Greek words you can gain an understanding of the origin of different symbols in the periodic table.


Elements with Symbols that don’t match their English name




The symbol Na is derived from Neo-Latin natrium



Derived from Latin kalium



Derived from Latin ferrum



From Latin cuprum



From Latin argentum



Derives from Latin stannum



Derives from Latin stibium


Choosing "H" as a symbol for hydrogen might seem straightforward, but it has historical significance. Using single-letter symbols to represent elements dates back over 200 years ago. In 1803, John Dalton published a list of elements – giving symbols to hydrogen, oxygen, azote (nitrogen), carbon and sulfur, along with their atomic weights. It was Dalton who suggested using the first letter or first two letters of the element's name as a symbol. As a result, the letter ‘H’ became the choice for hydrogen.


Hydrogen Uses Today

Nowadays hydrogen is used for a variety of purposes. From fuelling the trucks of the future to powering drones, this element is utilized as a fuel for fuel cells, powering many of the applications that used to rely on fossil fuels.

Today hydrogen is preferred to fossil fuels as a result of its lack of CO2 emissions, high energy density and versatility. This means in the next few decades things like trains, boats and even airplanes have the potential to be powered by hydrogen.


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