Sciency Words: Basic

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


During this year’s A to Z Challenge, I ended up covering several scientific terms that do not mean what you might think they mean. Notable examples include reduction, metallicity, and volatile. Basic is another good example, but I already had something else I really wanted to do for B.

Whenever I hear someone talking about basic chemicals, it’s not always clear to me what they mean. On the one hand, basic could mean simple or ordinary.

But basic can also mean fundamental or foundational, as in a base is a foundation upon which you can build something. This gets us closer to what the word means (or should mean) whenever we’re talking about chemicals.

A “Base” for Salt

The modern usage of base and basic in chemistry can be traced back to the mid-1700’s, to Guillaume-François Rouelle, a French scientist who studied the chemical formation of salts. Rouelle found that certain substances, such as alkalis, served as good “bases” for creating salts.

All you have to do is take one of Rouelle’s bases, add an acid, and voilà! you have a salt. And if your base happens to be sodium hydroxide and your acid happens to be hydrochloric acid, you end up with water and sodium chloride, a.k.a.: table salt.

So the next time you run out of table salt but have plenty of sodium hydroxide and hydrochloric acid around, you know what to do!

A “Base” for Protons

Our understanding of acid-base chemistry is a little more sophisticated today than it was in the 1700’s. Rouelle wouldn’t have known about protons, for example. Fortunately, the original terminology still makes a certain sense, even after we learned of protons and the role they play in acid-base reactions.

In most cases (excluding Lewis acids and Lewis bases), an acid can be thought of as a molecule with a proton dangling loosely off the side. This dangling proton will break off at the first opportunity, so long as the proton can find a better place to go.

In this context (again, excluding Lewis acids and Lewis bases), a base can be thought of as a molecule that can accept a proton that has broken free of an acid. In other words, it’s the “base” upon which the proton can land and make a new home for itself.

Basic Chemicals Aren’t So Basic

So if you hear someone talking about basic chemicals, you might want to ask for some clarification. By “basic,” do they mean (wrongly) a common or easy-to-make chemical, or are they talking (in a more proper sense) about acid-base chemistry?

2 Responses to Sciency Words: Basic

  1. Scott Levine says:

    I love posts like this. Did you time this to coincide within a couple days of the anniversary of the BASIC programming language?

    Liked by 1 person

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