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The chemical element Hydrargyrum (Hg) has two names in English: Quicksilver and Mercury.

Can these two words be used interchangeably? Is one of them more appropriate for a professional context?

  • English question? – Maulik V Mar 17 '14 at 14:35
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No, they are not interchangeable, and yes, one is definitely more appropriate.

To begin with, in any scientific or technical context, do not use quicksilver. It is an archaic term that will reflect badly on whatever it is you have to say precisely because it is archaic. (It would be somewhat similar to "See, the quicksilver doth pour forth out of the vessel. And if thou touchest it, that insidious substance, verily thou shalt become mad.") It would place doubts into the minds of your readers: "Why does this guy use THESE words? Does he really know what he's talking about?" Use mercury unless there's a very specific reason to refer to the element by its Latin name.

In poetic writing, on the other hand, quicksilver is fine. It's very descriptive and puts nice pictures into peoples' minds when they read it. (It's a truly beautiful substance, even if it is poisonous.)

TL;DR: Any of the words for the element may be used in a poetic or casual context. Use mercury anywhere you want to be taken "seriously" in a scientific/technical context.

  • I basically agree with your post (and I up-voted it), but I think you're mis-stating the issue a little. Using the word "quicksilver" would probably not make people think you are unacquainted with modern science, but rather make them wonder why you are using such outdated words. I think the real analogy would be if you wrote, say, "Whereupon we had causeth the mesons to impact upon the nucleus thereof, I saith unto my companions, Yo, What wondrous fair sub-particles have we wrought!" As you say, "quicksilver" is a word people associate with Shakespearean English and sometimes poetry, not ... – Jay Mar 17 '14 at 21:47
  • ... modern technical discussion. (Though now that I think of it, I think I'll try to sprinkle some Shakespearean English into my next technical paper and see what reaction I get ...) – Jay Mar 17 '14 at 21:47
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    I might add that this is exactly the sort of thing that trips up non-native speakers all the time: They look in a dictionary and see "My language's X translates to this language's Y", and unless the dictionary spells out the context where it is appropriate and the connotations of that word, they can end up saying things that sound hilarious or offensive. – Jay Mar 17 '14 at 21:52
  • @Jay - Nice concise version of ELL's raison d'être. Looking at any X-to-English dictionary, how would one know one word is so much more appropriate than the other? Yet, the answer is so obvious to a native speaker, it's not really an issue for the "serious etymologists" of ELU. – J.R. Mar 17 '14 at 22:15
  • @Jay: That's actually a much better way of putting it. I'm on a tablet right now, but I'll get that edited as soon as I can. I do contend, though, that my first two sentences of listeners' thought processes are accurate. – Jonathan Garber Mar 17 '14 at 23:57

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