Benzene is quite literally the dude of organic chemistry: a reaction would seem rather dull without a benzene ring thrown in for good measure. That’s my way of introducing a quirky, chemistry way of getting to the nickname Ben without having to use Benjamin (and the two are linked).
But what is a benzene ring I hear you cry. Well, they look like this:
The one on the right is how benzene is usually notated for the sake of simplicity. It also happens to be known as the Kekulé structure, since it was suggested by August Kekulé all the way back in 1865 after he had a little nap by the fireside and dreamt of snakes which inspired the ring shape of the molecule (it had previously been somewhat of a conundrum as to how to arrange six carbons and six hydrogens without breaking any key chemistry rules, e.g. carbon usually forms four bonds at a time).
As you can see, Kekulé came up with a structure which consists of a ring of carbon atoms with alternating single and double bonds.
Whilst a benzene ring itself is not particularly reactive due in part to it’s ring nature, it forms a part of many chemical compounds, e.g. TNT (the explosive):
Exciting, huh? But where does the name Benzene actually come from?
It derives from gum benzoin, an aromatic resin from southeast Asia and known to European pharmacists and perfumers since around the 15th century. The benzoin part itself is a corruption of the Arabic expression, lubān jāwī, or frankincense of Java. You see, those crazy Catalan traders who bought this gum benzoin (curiously sometimes also known as gum benjamin) dropped the lu part and changed the a to an e giving you the word benjawi. The Italians decided this wasn’t enough, so further altered the word to benjuì, and in Latin it ultimately came to be known as benzoë, making it look like a rather perplexing Benjamin and Zoë smoosh name.
That’s not the end of the story though, because benzene wasn’t originally called benzene – it was called bicarburet of hydrogen. This name was dreamt up by Michael Faraday (he of Faraday constant fame) when he first isolated and identified benzene in 1825. In 1833 a chap by Eilhard Mitscherlich came along and distilled benzoic acid (which comes from gum benzoin) and lime together to get benzene and he decided to name the compound benzin, and this eventually morphed in to the word benzene we know today.