Chemistry - Why is '-ethane' in 'methane'?

Solution 1:

meth vs eth

[OP] Why is '-ethane' in 'methane'?

This is a coincidence.

Methyl is

ultimately from Greek methy "wine" + hylē "wood.


The terminology was created by Dumas and Péligot in 1834 to distinguish wood alcohol from ethanol, and was published first in the French language:


Ethyl is from

Greek aithēr "upper air; bright, purer air; the sky" (opposed to aēr "the lower air"), from aithein "to burn, shine," from PIE *aidh- "to burn"


Liebig had argued in 1834 that what now is known to be $\ce{-C2H5}$ is a "radical", i.e. a reoccuring group in molecules such as diethyl ether, ethanol and ethyl ethanoate, and gave it the name ethyl.

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Using the ending -yl for both the methyl and the ethyl group is a suggestion by Berzelius from 1835 (the correct atomic weight of carbon was not know yet, so the chemical formulas are off by a factor of two):

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Source:, see Wikipedia entry on Ethyl group.

methane vs ethane

That these both end in -ane is not a coincidence - all alkanes end in -ane. As stated in M. Farooq's answer, this nomenclature was introduced by A. W. Hofmann in 1865.


Maurice's answer inspired me to find the first work by Dumas that led to the methyl terminology. I have edited my answer to incorporate information from the excellent answers by M. Farooq and Jan and the insightful comments. In trying to figure out the sequence of events in the 1830s, I made use of this account by Frederick E. Ziegler.


Dumas, J.-B, Mémoire sur l'esprit de bois et sur les divers composés éthérés qui en proviennent. lu à l'Académie des Sciences les 27 Octobre et 3 novembre 1834, Paris, 1834

Jean-Baptiste Dumas et Eugène Péligot, Mémoire sur l’Esprit de Bois et sur les divers Composés Ethérés qui en proviennent, Annales de chimie et de physique, 58 (1835) p. 5-74

Justus Liebig (1834) "Ueber die Constitution des Aethers und seiner Verbindungen" (On the composition of ethers and their compounds), Annalen der Pharmacie, 9 : 1–39

Jacob Berzelius, Årsberättelsen om framsteg i fysik och kemi [Annual report on progress in physics and chemistry] (Stockholm, Sweden: P.A. Norstedt & Söner, 1835), p. 376

A. W. Hofmann 1866, in Monatsbericht der Königl. Preuss. Akad. der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, 1865 653

Solution 2:

It’s worth pointing out how much of a coincidence it is that the modern ethyl and methyl are identical but for one letter. While Karsten already outlined the general bits of etymology behind these two words one can go a little bit deeper and find out how different they are.

Methane’s derivation traces itself back to Greek μέθυ (méthy) and ὕλη (hýlē with a long e) via the intermediate methyl. As the first component included Greek epsilon (ε), it was rendered e in all languages that are based on the Latin alphabet.

Ethane can be traced back directly to ethyl and was introduced to chemistry via German. However, when introduced the German spelling was actually Äthyl, sometimes (especially in the day) rendered Aethyl. The German letter ä represents a sound similar to the vowel in English bear – more open than the e spelling (which corresponds approximately to English here) would suggest. The German spelling changed sometime during the last century and nowadays the pronunciation of Ethyl and Ethan has the closed e-type vowel (while older non-chemists might still write ä and pronounce it with the more open vowel).

The Ä (or Ae) spelling in German was actually systematic, as it traces back to Latin aethēr that already featured ae; practically all Latin ae combinations are pronounced as ä in modern German. Latin borrowed this term from Greek (hence the th) where it was written αἰθήρ (aithḗr). Both the Greek and Latin terms were probably originally pronounced with an /ai/ diphthong (approximately as in high).

The term ethyl may have also entered English more directly, being derived from the already established and borrowed term ether (which came to English via French as a direct descendent of Latin aethēr; French had already dropped the leading a in spelling). The corresponding German term used to be written Äther or Aether exclusively. Nowadays, the chemical term is only Ether while the non-scientific term may be either but is more likely to remain Äther.

Thus, the two terms only began sharing most of their letters by accident and in late stages of their etymology; and had German remained a primary language of chemistry we might still be writing aethane or some derivative.

Solution 3:

For word-history lovers...It is all gifted from the German language. Hope that satisfies the OP's curiosity.

The suffix -ane, was chosen by a chemist and it was not random or accidental. It was a well thought-out suggestion by Hofmann.

Current sense.

In sense 2 after German -an (A. W. Hofmann 1866, in Monatsbericht der Königl. Preuss. Akad. der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, 1865 653, translated by the author in quot. 1867). In this passage, Hofmann proposes a series of five such suffixes, one with each vowel (German -an , -en , -in , -on , -un ), and the systematic application of these to specific types of hydrocarbons, or their analogues. Of these (and their English equivalents), only -an -ane suffix2, -en -ene comb. form, and -in -ine suffix5 were adopted by others. As influences on his nomenclature, Hofmann cites (in the same paper) A. Laurent (compare -ene comb. form) and C. Gerhard (compare discussion at -ol suffix and -one suffix).


Origin: Formed within English, by derivation; modelled on a German lexical item. Etymons: meth- comb. form, -ane suffix. Etymology: < meth- comb. form + -ane suffix, after German Methan (A. W. Hofmann 1866, in Monatsbericht der Königl. Preuss. Akad. der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, 1865 653).


Etymology: < eth- comb. form + -ane, after German Aethan (A. W. Hofmann 1866, in Monatsbericht der Königl. Preuss. Akad. der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, 1865 653; also Äthan and (now usually) Ethan).

Ref: Oxford's Unabridged Dictionary (behind subscription).