What does the p in pH stand for?
The term pH has been in use for more than a century. It is a logarithmic measure of the hydrogen ion concentration ([H+]): pH = -log10[H+]. (Technically, there aren't bare protons (H+) floating around in solutions, but that wasn’t known when pH was introduced!) The original symbol used by Sorensen was pH+.
Theories vary as to the origin of the p - most agree it means power but whether in Latin, French or German, seems in dispute. Thinking it would be either French or Latin as the original paper was published in French, I was surprised to find that it's neither, though the legend is both old and persistent. By 1920, many authors were assuming that it meant “power”, but Jens Norby returned to the original sources and points out that it was the arbitrary choice of the letters p and q for two variables in the work-up of the experimental data. The variable p eventually ends up in the formula arrived at for the concentration of the hydrogen ion.
The modern form pH was introduced in 1920, "as a matter of typographical convenience".
For the full explanation, see Jens G. Norby, The origin and the meaning of the little p in pH, Trends in Biochemical Sciences 25, 36-37 (2000). The illustration is a selection from the original paper: Sorensen, Compt. redn. du Lab. de Carlsberg 8 1-168 (1909).
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