A soft, malleable, ductile, silver-white metallic → chemical element; symbol La. → atomic number 57; → atomic weight 138.9055; → melting point about 920°C; → boiling point about 3,460°C; → specific gravity 6.19 at 25°C; → valence +3. Lanthanum is a member of the → lanthanide group, also called → rare-earth elements. Two naturally occurring → isotopes of lanthanum are known, 139La (more than 99%) and 138La (less than 0.1%). The → half-life of 138La is 1.1 x 1011 years.
From lanthan- + suffix -um, variant of → -ium. The first component from Gk. lanthanein for "to lie hidden, to escape notice" because it hid in cerium ore and was difficult to separate from that rare-earth mineral. It was discovered in the form lanthanium oxide, called lanthana, by the Swedish surgeon and chemist Carl-Gustav Mosander (1797-1858) in 1839. Subsequently, in 1842, Mosander separated his lanthanium sample into two oxides; for one of these he retained the name lanthanum and for the other he gave the name didymium (or twin).