My watch list  

Chemistry (etymology)

In the history of science, the etymology of the word chemistry is a debatable issue.[1] It is agreed that the word “alchemy” is a European one, derived from Arabic, but the origin of the root word, chem, is uncertain.[2] Words similar to it have been found in most ancient languages, with different meanings, but conceivably somehow related to alchemy. In fact, the Greeks, Chinese, and Indians usually referred to what Westerners call alchemy as “The Art,” or by terms denoting change or transmutation. Most historians, however, agree that the Egyptians were the first chemists. French chemist Antoine Fourcroy, for example, in his 1782 Leçons élémentaires d’histoire naturelle et de chemie, divides the early history of chemistry into four epochs: Egypt, the Arabs, alchemy, and the pharmaceutical chemistry begun by Paracelsus.[3]

The basic roots of the word "chemistry", essentially, derive from the ancient study of how to transmute "earthen" metals into "gold" in combination with thoughts on alchemical spells as well endeavors into a quest for the Philosopher's stone. The majority of authors agreed that the word "chemistry" has an Egyptian origin, based on the ancient Egyptian word kēme (chem), which stands for earth. [4] [5] [6] In short, most agree that alchemy was born in ancient Egypt, where the word “Khem” was used in reference to the fertility of the flood plains around the Nile.[7]

Some, however, maintain that the word "chemistry" has a Greek origin, based on the Greek word χημεία (chemeia) meaning "cast together".[8] Others reason that the word alchemy is derived from the Greek for "The Egyptian Art".[9]

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.[10] Reputed to have lived about 1900 B.C., 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.



In general, knowing that Egypt was founded as a state in c. 3000BC, whereas the early Greeks only began to settle in Peloponnese in c. 2000 BC, it is likely that the Greek alchemists adopted Egyptian terminology.[11] The alchemical theories associated with Hermes Trismegistus, is the syncretism of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian Thoth.[12] Moreover, it is known that the 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.[6] This origin theory, in chemistry, was generally known as the "pyramid of composition" and was utilized 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 BC), 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 alchemy in the Dark Ages, then “chymistry” in 1661 with Boyle’s publication, and now “chemistry”.

The birthplace of alchemy then, according to most references, was ancient Egypt, where, in Alexandria, it 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 BC by Empedocles—that all things are composed of air, earth, fire, and water—was influential in alchemy.[13]

Likewise, according to noted chemistry historian James R. Partington, from his four-volume magnum opus History of Chemistry (1969), the reference to which "all historians of chemistry remain profoundly indebted"[14], “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 came from Egypt and Mesopotamia.[15]

In sum, as to the derivation of the word there are two main views 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 XvAda; 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. Among the Alexandrian writers alchemy was designated as Xpvvoi TE Kai apyipou 7roc7Jvews TEXvn Oda Kai iepa or k7fc6TY ] �7] iepa. In English, Piers Plowman (1362) contains the phrase " experimentis of alconomye," with variants alkenemye " and " a] knamye." The prefix al began to be dropped about the middle of the 16th century (further details of which are given below).[16]

Egyptian origin

According to the Egyptologist Wallis Budge, the Arabic word al-kīmiyaˀ 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[17]. 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".

Greek origin

Arabic al-kimia, according to some, is thought to derive from Greek word khemeia (χημεία) meaning alchemy. According to Mann, the Greek word χυμεία khumeia meaning "pouring together", "casting together", "weld", "alloy", etc. (cf. Gk. kheein "to pour"; khumatos, "that which is poured out, an ingot").[17] Assuming a Greek origin, chemistry is defined as follows:

Chemistry, from the Greek word χημεία (chemeia) 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.

The word alchemy comes from the Arabic al-kīmiyaˀ or al-khīmiyaˀ (الكيمياء or الخيمياء, also cf. Persian kimia meaning "gold") which is probably formed from the article al- and the Greek word for alchemy, khemeia (χημεία). This is also thought to be connected with the Greek words kheein "to pour" and khumeia "poured together", "cast together", "weld", "alloy", and khumatos, "that which is poured out, an ingot".

From Alchemy to Chemistry

It was the famous mineralogist and humanist Georg Agricola who first dropped the Arabic definite article and began, in his Latin works from 1530 on, to write "chymia" and "chymista" instead of the earlier "alchymia" and "alchymista". As a humanist, Agricola was intent on purifying words and returning them to their classical roots. He had no intent to make a distinction between a rational and practical science of "chymia" and the occult "alchymia", for he used the first of these words to apply to both kinds of activities. The modern denotational distinction arose only in the early eighteenth century.

During the rest of the 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). This work was frequently re-published in the second half of the sixteenth century, and the earliest known occurrences of forms of the French "chimie," the German "Chemie," the Italian "chimica," and the English "chemistry" are found in early translations.

See also


  1. ^ Alchemy - Dictionary of Ideas.
  2. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica, 2002 Edition, CD-ROM
  3. ^ Fourcroy, A. (1782). Lecons elementaires d’history naturaelle et de chemie. Paris.
  4. ^ Tweed, Matt (2003). Essential Elements - Atoms, Quarks, and the Periodic Table. New York: Walker & Company. ISBN 0802714080
  5. ^ Chemical History Tour, Picturing Chemistry from Alchemy to Modern Molecular Science Adele Droblas Greenberg Wiley-Interscience 2000 ISBN 0471354082
  6. ^ a b Cohen, Bernard, I.; Smith, George, E. (2002). The Cambridge Companion to Newton. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521656966. 
  8. ^ Weekley, Ernest (1967). Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. New York: Dover Publications. ISBN 0486218732
  9. ^ A History of Alchemy – University of Bristol, School of Chemistry.
  10. ^ History of Alchemy from Ancient Egypt to Modern Times – the
  11. ^ Cunliffe, Barry (2001). Atlas of World History. Barnes and Nobel. ISBN 0760727104. 
  12. ^ (Budge The Gods of the Egyptians Vol. 1 p. 415)
  13. ^ the Alchemist’s Corner.
  14. ^ Brock, William, .H. (1992). The Chemical Tree - A History of Chemistry. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 00393320685. 
  15. ^ Partington, James, R. (1937). A Short History of Chemistry. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.,. ISBN 0486659771. 
  16. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica – 1911 Edition.
  17. ^ a b Alchemy - Online Etymology Dictionary
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Chemistry_(etymology)". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
Your browser is not current. Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 does not support some functions on Chemie.DE