Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Time to eat my words - well, one of 'em, anyway

I just came across a fascinating bit of trivia, worth repeating here. It comes from the book "What in the Word?" by Charles Harrington Elster, and concerns the origin of the word aluminum. Where I grew up, and pretty much everywhere in the world except the U.S., the word is spelled aluminium - with that extra "i," it's obviously pronounced differently as well. I've always laughed at what I thought was yet another American abuse of the Queen's English. But, no...

Seems there was a story going around that in the early days of Reynolds Aluminium, a clerk placed a large order for company stationery, and misspelled the word in question - Aluminum! Because the order was so large, the company decided to let it be and, if questioned, merely assert that this was - yes - the American spelling of the word! "What in the Word?" refutes this notion - here is the real explanation:

"...It's complete poppycock. Sir Humphrey Davy coined aluminum in 1812, based on Latin alumen, aluminis, which meant "alum" (potassium aluminum sulfate). The variant aluminium with the additional i appeared that same year "as a deliberate alteration," one etymological source says, "on the analogy of other names of elements, such as sodium, magnesium, potassium, all coined earlier by Davy." (Kind of like nucular coming about because of false analogy with muscular, molecular, etc.) So the EC (etymologically correct) form is the American one. (Suck on that one, limeys.)"

However... Wikipedia, interestingly, redirects a search for aluminum to aluminium, thereby inferring a preference for the British spelling. But the article itself seems to take a neutral stance on the topic.

And... Since I have a permanent link to World Wide Words over there on the left, I have to give a nod to its entry for this damnable word.

It's gonna take time for me to get used to aluminum, but this one I have to concede! (Btw, if you're interested in the word limey, click it!)

1 comment:

Shawn said...

Ha! Take that limeys!