Etymology of chemistry

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Chemistry (etymology))
Jump to: navigation, search

In the history of science, the etymology of the word chemistry is debatable. It is agreed that the word derives from the word alchemy, which is a European one, derived from the Kimiya (کیمیا) Alchemy al-kīmiyāʾ (الكيمياء). The Arabic term is derived from the Ancient Greek χημία khēmia or χημεία khēmeia.[1][2] However, the ultimate origin of the root word, chem, is uncertain.[3]

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the majority theory is that al-kīmiyāʾ is derived from χημία, which is derived from the ancient Egyptian name of Egypt (khem, khame, or khmi, meaning "black earth", contrasting with the surrounding desert.) Therefore, alchemy is the "Egyptian art".[1] However, it is also possible that al-kīmiyāʾ derived from χημεία, meaning "cast together".[4]

Traditionally, the science of alchemy was once considered to have sprung from great Egyptian figure named by the Greeks "Hermes Trismegistus" (the "thrice-great" Hermes, celebrated as priest, king, and scholar), who is thought to have been the founder of the art.[5] Reputed to have lived about 1900 BC, he was highly celebrated for his wisdom and skill in the operations of nature. In 1614 Isaac Casaubon demonstrated that the works attributed to Hermes – the so-called "Hermetic corpus" – were actually written pseudonymously during the first three centuries of the Common Era.[citation needed]


The first documents written in ancient Greek date from around 800 BC[6] more than 1,000 years after literary Egyptian; so Greek alchemists may have adopted Egyptian terminology.[7] Other possible sources include the Old Persian word "Kimiya" meaning gold, and the desire (or process) of converting any other minerals to gold "Kimiya-gari" or finding a cure to end aging "Aab-e-Hayat". After Islam, Persian words converted to Arabic, with the addition of "AL" to the names. The alchemical theories associated with Hermes Trismegistus, is the syncretism of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian Thoth.[8] Moreover, it is known that "[t]he four chemical gods of the Egyptians, the female-male original principle of Osiris (male Sun) and the corresponding Isis (Wife-sister, female Moon), as well as Mercury and Vulcan, became eight gods and finally twelve gods, who were later taken over by the Greeks."[9] This origin theory, in chemistry, was generally known as the "pyramid of composition" and was used in the writing of Michael Maier, who in turn influenced Isaac Newton in his alchemical writings in the 1680s. Hence, the ancient "Egypt" word kēme (3000 B. C.), which stands for earth, is a possible root word of chemistry; this later became "khēmia", or transmutation, by 300 AD, and then “al-khemia” in the Arabic world, then alchemia in the Dark Ages, then “chymistry” in 1661 with Boyle’s publication, and now “chemistry”.

In Alexandria alchemy began to flourish in the Hellenistic period. Simultaneously, a school of alchemy was developing in China. The writings of some of the early Greek philosophers might be considered to contain the first chemical theories; and the theory advanced in the 5th century B. C. by Empedocles—that all things are composed of air, earth, fire, and water—was influential in alchemy.[10]

J. R. Partington in his four-volume work History of Chemistry (1969) [11] says that “the earliest applications of chemical processes were concerned with the extraction and working of metals and the manufacture of pottery, which were forms of crafts practiced many centuries before the Bronze Age cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia.” Thus, according to Partington, alchemy preceded Egypt and Mesopotamia.[12]

There are two main views on the derivation of the word, which agree in holding that it has an Arabic descent, the prefix al being the Arabic article. But according to one, the second part of the word comes from the Greek χημεία, pouring, infusion, used in connexion with the study of the juices of plants, and thence extended to chemical manipulations in general; this derivation accounts for the old-fashioned spellings "chymist" and "chymistry". The other view traces it to khem or khame, hieroglyph khmi, which denotes black earth as opposed to barren sand, and occurs in Plutarch as χημεία; on this derivation alchemy is explained as meaning the "Egyptian art". The first occurrence of the word is said to be in a treatise of Julius Firmicus, an astrological writer of the 4th century, but the prefix al there must be the addition of a later copyist. In English, Piers Plowman (1362) contains the phrase "experimentis of alconomye", with variants "alkenemye" and " alknamye". The prefix al began to be dropped about the middle of the 16th century (further details of which are given below).[13]

Egyptian origin[edit]

According to the Egyptologist Wallis Budge, the Arabic word al-kīmiyaʾ actually means "the Egyptian [science]", borrowing from the Coptic word for "Egypt", kēme (or its equivalent in the Mediaeval Bohairic dialect of Coptic, khēme). This Coptic word derives from Demotic kmỉ, itself from ancient Egyptian kmt. The ancient Egyptian word referred to both the country and the colour "black" (Egypt was the "Black Land", by contrast with the "Red Land", the surrounding desert); so this etymology could also explain the nickname "Egyptian black arts". However, according to Mahn, this theory may be an example of folk etymology.[14] Assuming an Egyptian origin, chemistry is defined as follows:

Chemistry, from the ancient Egyptian word "khēmia" meaning transmutation of earth, is the science of matter at the atomic to molecular scale, dealing primarily with collections of atoms, such as molecules, crystals, and metals.

Thus, according to Budge and others, chemistry derives from an Egyptian word khemein or khēmia, "preparation of black powder", ultimately derived from the name khem, Egypt. A decree of Diocletian, written about 300 AD in Greek, speaks against "the ancient writings of the Egyptians, which treat of the khēmia transmutation of gold and silver".[15]

Greek origin[edit]

Arabic al-kīmiyaʾ or al-khīmiyaʾ (الكيمياء or الخيمياء), according to some, is thought to derive from the Koine Greek word khymeia (χυμεία) meaning "the art of alloying metals, alchemy"; in the manuscripts, this word is also written khēmeia (χημεία) or kheimeia (χειμεία),[16] which is the probable basis of the Arabic form. According to Mahn, the Greek word χυμεία khumeia originally meant "pouring together", "casting together", "weld", "alloy", etc. (cf. Gk. kheein (χέειν) "to pour"; khuma (χύμα), "that which is poured out, an ingot").[14] Assuming a Greek origin, chemistry is defined as follows:

Chemistry, from the Greek word χημεία (khēmeia) meaning "cast together" or "pour together", is the science of matter at the atomic to molecular scale, dealing primarily with collections of atoms, such as molecules, crystals, and metals.

From alchemy to chemistry[edit]

Later medieval Latin had alchimia / alchymia "alchemy", alchimicus "alchemical", and alchimista "alchemist". The mineralogist and humanist Georg Agricola (died 1555) first dropped the Arabic definite article al- and began, in his Latin works from 1530 on, to write chymia and chymista. As a humanist, Agricola was intent on purifying words and returning them to their classical roots. He had no intent to make a semantic distinction between chymia and alchymia.

During the later sixteenth century Agricola's new coinage slowly propagated. It seems to have been adopted in most of the vernacular European languages following Conrad Gessner's adoption of it in his extremely popular pseudonymous work, De remediis secretis: Liber physicus, medicus, et partim etiam chymicus (Zurich 1552). Gessner's work was frequently re-published in the second half of the 16th century in Latin and was also published in a number of vernacular European languages, with the word spelled without the al-.

In the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe the forms alchimia and chimia (and chymia) were synonymous and interchangeable. The semantic distinction between a rational and practical science of chimia and an occult alchimia arose only in the early eighteenth century.

In 16th, 17th and early 18th century English the spellings — both with and without the "al" — were usually with an i or y as in chimic / chymic / alchimic / alchymic. During the later 18th century the spelling was re-fashioned to use a letter e, as in chemic in English. In English after the spelling shifted from chimical to chemical, there was corresponding shift from alchimical to alchemical, which occurred in the early 19th century.[17] In French, Italian, Spanish and Russian today it continues to be spelled with an i as in for example Italian chimica "chemistry".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "alchemy", entry in The Oxford English Dictionary, J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner, vol. 1, 2nd ed., 1989, ISBN 0-19-861213-3.
  2. ^ p. 854, "Arabic alchemy", Georges C. Anawati, pp. 853-885 in Encyclopedia of the history of Arabic science, eds. Roshdi Rashed and Régis Morelon, London: Routledge, 1996, vol. 3, ISBN 0-415-12412-3.
  3. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica, 2002 Edition, CD-ROM
  4. ^ Weekley, Ernest (1967). Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. New York: Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-21873-2
  5. ^ History of Alchemy from Ancient Egypt to Modern Times – the
  6. ^ Not including the Linear B tablets from 1300–1100 BC, which are more inventory lists than anything else.
  7. ^ Cunliffe, Barry (2001). Atlas of World History. Barnes & Noble. ISBN 0-7607-2710-4. 
  8. ^ (Budge The Gods of the Egyptians Vol. 1 p. 415)
  9. ^ Cohen, Bernard, I.; Smith, George, E. (2002). The Cambridge Companion to Newton. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-65696-6. 
  10. ^ the Alchemist’s Corner (this ref is dodgy and doesn't even work for me).
  11. ^ Brock, William, .H. (1992). The Chemical Tree: A History of Chemistry. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-32068-5. 
  12. ^ Partington, James, R. (1937). A Short History of Chemistry. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.,. ISBN 0-486-65977-1. 
  13. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica – 1911 Edition.
  14. ^ a b Harper, Douglas. "alchemy". Online Etymology Dictionary. 
  15. ^ Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. alchemy
  16. ^ Cf. Liddell-Scott-Jones s.v. χυμεία.
  17. ^ "Chemic", "chemical" and "chemistry" in New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (year 1893). Also "Alchemy" and "alchemist" in New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (year 1888).

External links[edit]