Weird Al3 min read

Reading Time: 3 minutes How the American spelling of aluminium came to be and why, for once, the Americans got it right.

Jan 20, 2022 3 min

Weird Al3 min read

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Found this interesting tidbit on how the American spelling of aluminium came to be and why, for once, the Americans got it right.

There were seven metals known to the ancients. By the time we got to the end of the Classical Period in Europe, they were known by their Latin names: Aurum (Gold), Argentum (Silver), Cuprum (Copper), Plumbum (Lead), Ferrum (Iron), Stannum (Tin), and Hydrargyrum (Mercury). Notice there’s a letter “missing” in all of those.

When we started isolating newer metals starting in the 16th century, that naming convention was retained, first with Platinum… Then things get messy for those who misinterpret what they’re looking at. -stares in Science at England- A metallic element was isolated from magnesia. The terminal ‘a’ was dropped and the Latin ‘um’ suffix added, giving us Magnesium. A metallic element was isolated from baryta. The terminal ‘ta’ was dropped and the Latin ‘um’ suffix added, giving us, first Baryum, later refined to Barium.

This continued through Molybdenum, Tellurium, Strontium, and Zirconium — when there’s that ‘i’ in there, it’s because it was retained from the name of the base name, usually the location or mineral of its discovery (Telluria, strontianite, zirconia…). The first goof crept in with Uranium. The German chemist who was working to isolate it named it after the newly-discovered planet Uranus — but then the element should have been Uranum. As it is, he accidentally named it after the Muse of Astronomy, Urania. Same guy later borked the metallic element isolated from beryl as Beryllium. I’d love to go back and ask him if he understood linguistics.

All the others around then followed the conventional form — if there was an ‘i’ before the ‘um’, it was retained from the root word, rather than added on: Titanium, Yttrium, Chromium, Vanadium, Niobium, Tantalum…

By this point, we’re into the 19th century and English chemists are really getting rolling. One of them seems to have carried over the same misinterpretation as our German friend, above. He named a newly-isolated metallic element after the recently-discovered asteroid Pallas (Palladium) and another after the explorer/exploiter Cecil Rhodes (Rhodium). Both with an “erroneous ‘i'”. Then others, including the fairly famous Sir Humphrey Davy, gave us Potassium (from potash — shouldn’t have an ‘i’), Sodium (from soda — shouldn’t have an ‘i’), Iridium, Osmium, and so on like that.

So, after more than you probably ever wanted to know about chemical etymology, they managed to finally isolate the metallic element in alum. The ancients knew about it and used it, but never understood what it was. The old Latin name for the substance was alumen, which entered English via the French alumine, rendered by the English as alumina. Sir Humphrey initially proposed Alumium (alum+ium), but French, German, and Swedish chemists objected that it should be named from the Latin root (alumina-a+um, or aluminum). English chemists countered that the ‘um’ suffix sounded “insufficiently classical” (indicating they didn’t know what they were talking about) and insisted on the ‘ium’ ending.

Thus, in typical British fashion of the day, they bulled their way through and ‘Aluminium’ became the accepted spelling everywhere, except for the occasional appearance of ‘Aluminum’ in the UK… Until the 1820s when Noah Webster used exclusively ‘Aluminum’ in his dictionaries and, over the next century, usage flopped the other way, with Aluminum in far wider use, especially dominating in North America. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry officially adopted ‘Aluminium’ as the standard international name for the element in 1990, and I was most annoyed. They added ‘Aluminum’ as an accepted variant in 1993, but they are, in my opinion, wrong on this matter.

I’m not an exceptionalist, I hasten to say. America got ‘billion’ wrong, and, unfortunately, has bullied the rest of the world into accepting our usage instead of the correct one, so I can acknowledge screw-ups where they occur, and don’t think anyone can do no wrong.


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