Etymology of 'Base': Understand Why It's Called So

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In summary, Rouelle developed the idea that bases are substances which neutralize acids. This idea was overshadowed by the theories for acids, but bases have been known for a long time.
  • #1
I wonder why bases are called so? In other languages they are named according to the same principles, but I don't get what are they. So why would scientists give a name like 'base' to the respective substance?
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  • #2
It is something that i have thought about before, but never really did try looking for an answer. I just did a bit of a search on google and found this:

Bases were identified and categorised as the substances which are neutralising acids. For that reason, the progress in the characterisation of bases was always connected to the more popular characterisation of acids. As a consequence, the theories for bases were always overshadowed by the theories for acids. Nevertheless, bases have also been known for a long time.

The associated word 'alkaline' (which is used to describe the properties of a base-solution, like its soapy taste) has Arabic roots. The term originally meant 'roasting', because the first alkaline substances were obtained by roasting ashes then treating them with water and slaked lime (calcium hydroxide). The substances obtained are sodium and potassium hydroxide, two of the most classic bases, which were used to make soap.

The use of the word 'base' to describe these substances was introduced a lot later; the original rationale remains obscure. One possibility is that the 'bases' were the basic (in the sense of 'fundamental') compounds used to form salts with acids. Another possibility is that it's called that just to add confusion. The second theory has many adherents among chemistry students.

It doesn't give a definitive answer, but i guess it is a possibility.
  • #3
I just came across this article which may give more insight:

Its modern meaning and general
introduction into the chemical vocabulary,
however, is usually attributed to the
French chemist, Guillaume-François
Rouelle (1703–1770), who used the
term in a memoir on salts written in
1754 (5). In this paper, which was an
extension of an earlier memoir on the
same subject written in 1744 (6),
Rouelle pointed out that the number of
known salts had increased significantly
during the 17th and early 18th centuries,
due not only to the preparation of
new salts, but also to an increasing ability
to distinguish between sodium and
potassium compounds, and to a generalization
of the concept so as to include
many substances, such as the alums and
vitriols (i.e., sulfates), that had been previously
In order to incorporate this extended
concept of salt formation,
Rouelle explicitly defined a neutral salt
as the product formed by the union of
an acid with any substance, be it a watersoluble
alkali, a volatile alkali, an absorbent
earth, a metal, or an oil, capable of
serving as “a base” for the salt “by giving
it a concrete or solid form”.
  • #4
Thanks a lot, this was really helpful!

What is the definition of "etymology"?

Etymology is the study of the origin and history of words, including how their meanings and forms have changed over time.

How is the word "base" typically defined?

The word "base" can be defined as the bottom or foundation of something, or as a starting point or fundamental principle.

Why is the word "base" used to describe the foundation or starting point of something?

The word "base" comes from the Latin word "basis", meaning "foundation" or "pedestal". It was later adopted into Old French as "base" and eventually into Middle English as "base".

Are there any other related words with similar origins to "base"?

Yes, there are other words with similar origins to "base", such as "basic", "basis", and "basement". These words all derive from the Latin word "basis" and have similar meanings related to foundation or starting point.

How has the meaning of "base" evolved over time?

The word "base" has evolved to have various meanings in different contexts. While it still commonly refers to a foundation or starting point, it can also refer to something low or inferior, or even morally corrupt. This change in meaning can be seen in phrases like "base instincts" or "base desires".

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