06 April 2009
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I'm Reticent to Deteriorate IUPAC

One bit of chemical arcana I learned in my remote youth was that the stinky chemical emitted by the skunk was called n-butyl mercaptan.  I don't remember who told me this; I'm sure it wasn't part of any organized learning experience.  But I always felt privileged to have this knowledge since nobody else seemed to.  I rarely had the opportunity to divulge the datum, either, since I lived in New York City, where run-over skunks were about as rare as deer encounters on Fifth Avenue.  Even so, I savored the information, if not the aroma itself, and would mutter "mercaptan" from time to time when exposed to aromas of the City.

IUPAC is the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.  Here's how they describe themselves:

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) serves to advance the worldwide aspects of the chemical sciences and to contribute to the application of chemistry in the service of Mankind. As a scientific, international, non-governmental and objective body, IUPAC can address many global issues involving the chemical sciences.

IUPAC is in charge of naming the chemical elements.  In fact, in "researching" this blogitem, I discovered that I had to make a change to the table in my bonus item, Periodic Table Bingo.  It seems that they snuck #111, previously and temporarily abbreviated Uuu, past me.  Without even an email, they dubbed it Roentgenium, after Wilhelm Roentgen, the guy who discovered X-rays.  I consider this a good choice, even though we're likely to run out of elements long before running out of worthy scientists.  (It seems they neglected to notify Los Alamos as well, which is why I had to update my table manually.  Some might consider that an even greater omission.)  But back to mercaptan.


IUPAC has developed a system of nomenclature of organic chemistry.  Unfortunately, this system has removed the romance from names of yore.  Butyl mercaptan has transmogrified into the heading immediately above.  The skunks don't care, but it renders obsolete one of my more cherished memories of chemistry.  (IUPAC has also given us ethanol and taken away that mainstay, ethyl alcohol.  A less dubious improvement, I suppose.)

The reason I got started on this was the mention of "dextromethorphan" in the Wall Street Journal.  I try to be careful to add only chemicals to my "chemical of the day" list.  In most cases it's easy to tell if you've got a real chemical:  Sodium chloride is, aspirin, the common name for IUPAC-named 2-acetoxybenzoic acid, is not.  Acetylsalicylic acid, the pre-IUPAC and common name for aspirin would be, at least by my standards.  I decided to accept dextromethorphan, even though IUPAC dubs it ((+)-3-methoxy-17-methyl- (9α,13α,14α)-morphinan).  Sometimes you just have to make a judgment call.

In my youth, a time when chemistry kits had actual chemicals, I pondered the notion that I might become a chemist if the neighbors let me grow up.  My parents found ways of discouraging this, and in retrospect I can't blame them for putting their interests and those of their household chattels first.  Besides, electricity provides similar scientific opportunities with fewer hazards, especially as we have now migrated away from vacuum tubes and their associated voltages.  But I have retained my love for the elements, and I'm reticent to deteriorate IUPAC for occasionally depriving me of my chemical names, especially in view of their good work in keeping the Periodic Table up to date.


You caught me.  I did write "reticent to deteriorate."  Twice, in fact, if you count the blogitem title.  "My bad."

"Reticent" does not mean "reluctant."  Reticent means "inclined to be silent or uncommunicative in speech."  One isn't reticent to do something. 

"Deteriorate," unfortunately does mean "to make inferior in quality or value."  I thought it could only be used in the intransitive sense, but I foolishly looked it up and proved myself wrong.  "My bad" again.  Even so, it doesn't mean "derogate" or "denigrate," so at least both parts of my solecism would be incorrect with respect to IUPAC even if I weren't reticent to deteriorate them, which I am, or would be if "reticent" meant what some think it means.

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