Sciency Words: Oxidation

Hello, friends, and welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about the definitions and etymologies of scientific terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:


You may think of oxygen as something good and wholesome.  It’s what we breathe.  It gives us life.  How easily you forget all the other things oxygen can do.  It corrodes metals.  It degrades organic materials.  And under the right conditions, oxygen supports and perpetuates combustion reactions (a.k.a. fire).

French chemist Antoine Lavoisier usually gets credit for coining the words oxygen and oxidation.  He was the first to write about the principe oxygine (French for the acidifying principle).  The words oxygen and oxidation appeared soon afterwards in English translations of Lavoisier’s work, so maybe the English translators should get some of the credit too.

Anyway, oxidation originally referred to chemical reactions involving oxygen, specifically.  But then through a process of semantic generalization, the word oxidation came to refer to any chemical reaction similar to the kind of chemical reaction oxygen could cause.  Oxygen is no longer considered a necessary ingredient for oxidation, and some chemicals (i.e.: chlorine and fluorine) have turned out to be better oxidizers than oxygen.

So what actually happens when one chemical substance oxidizes another?  Well, oxygen and other strong oxidizing agents are greedy for electrons.  Oxidation is the act of stealing electrons from another chemical substance.  Or, if outright stealing doesn’t work, then oxidizing agents will try to form chemical bonds that allow them to “share” electrons—but it will be a highly unequal kind of sharing, one that does not favor the atoms that originally owned those electrons.

A whole lot of energy can be released in oxidation reactions.  That’s what makes them so destructive.  However, life on Earth has found ways to control the energy released by oxygen oxidation and put that energy to good use.  That’s why oxygen is generally thought of as something good and wholesome, even though it’s really one of the most dangerous and destructive chemicals in the world.

P.S.: It’s important to remember that whenever an oxidation reaction occurs, a reduction reaction also occurs.  And reduction is another Sciency Word with an interesting history.

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