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ORIGIN OF THE WORD “CHEMISTRY.”

By LEO SUPPAN
from The National Druggist (1919)

Detail from painting: Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus. An alchemist kneels to observe a glowing flask of vapours from a retort
The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus
Detail from The Alchymist, In Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, Discovers Phosphorus, and prays for the successful Conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the Ancient Chymical Astrologers (1771), by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797)

[p.292] IT is well known that the doctrines held by the alchemists of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were derived from the ancient Egyptians. These theoretical ideas passed from the Egyptians to the Greeks through the great school of Alexandria, and from them to the Syrians of Mesopotamia, in the times of the early Mohammedan caliphs. The Syrian writings in which they found expression were studied by the Arabians, who translated them into their own tongue; these Arabic versions were then brought into Spain by the Mohammedans and the Moors when that country was conquered by those peoples. The universities in Spain were visited by students and scholars from all parts of Europe; and it is these scholars who, bringing what survived of the ancient learning into the various countries, translated the works on alchemy into the Castilian and Provençal languages, and into Hebrew and Latin toward the end of the twelfth and beginning of the thirteenth century. The researches of Marcelin Berthelot have demonstrated the fact that many of the treatises on alchemy in the Latin tongue, which were regarded as authorities by the mediaeval alchemists, contain translations from Arabian authors which, in turn, embodied the ideas we encounter in the old Greek manuscripts that have survived to us; indeed, many portions of these Arabic texts prove to be almost verbatim translations of earlier Greek writings. And what is true of the theoretical ideas that guided the alchemists in their search for the Magesterium, the Universal Solvent, the Universal Elixir, etc., holds likewise for the many practical treatises on chemical operations which were used and described by Egyptian and Greek craftsmen and passed by them to the Roman and Christian worlds, to appear in manifold Latin translations and editions.1

Before the sixth and seventh centuries after Christ that body of doctrines and practices which was later called “alchemy” was known variously as “the Sacred Art,” “the Occult Science,” “the Art of Hermes,” or “the Hermetic Art.” The word alchemia or chemia (the direct precursor of our chemistry, Chemie, chimie, etc.), occurs for the first time, according to a statement of Kopp, in the Mathesis of Julius Firmicius Maternus, a writer on astrology, who lived in the fourth century A.C., and of whose works a number of manuscript copies are still in existence. In this work Firmicius states that if a person is born under the sign of Mercury he will devote himself to the science of astronomy; if under Mars, to the profession of arms; and if under Saturn, to the science of alchemy; the words are “Si fuerit haec domus (i.e., the position of the moon), Saturn, dabit scientiam Alchemiae” (or Chemiae: in certain manuscripts the word is alchemiae, in others chemiae).

How did it happen that the term chemia came to denote the science that was at one time known as “the Hermetic Art”? that is to say, where are we to look for the origin of the word? This is a question that has engaged the labors of etymologists for several centuries: and a number of ingenious theories has been advanced in explanation.

The fact that such knowledge as we possess of the earliest chemical processes is derived from Egyptian records, or from Greek writings based on Egyptian records, and the additional fact that Khem, Khemi, Kent, Kemi, or Chemi (the word is variously spelled) was the ancient name of Egypt, and that, the art was in early times sometimes spoken of as the “Egyptian Art,” led a number of scholars of repute to believe that the word chemia is derived from Kem, the ancient name of Egypt. Indeed, this is the one that was most commonly held until comparatively recent times. Opposed to this opinion is the more recent view that the word comes from the Greek, and has no reference whatever to Khem or to anything specifically Egyptian. A resume of the various derivations current in earlier times is given in Boerhaave’s New Method of Chemistry, introductory chapter, published in the eighteenth century. We quote, from the London edition of 1727:

“The word chemistry in Greek should be wrote chemia, and in Latin and English chemia and chemistry, not as usual, chymia and chymistry.

“The first author in whom the word is found is Plutarch, who lived under the Emperors Domitian, Nerva and Trajan. That philosopher in his treatise of Isis and Osiris, takes occasion to observe that Egypt, in the sacred dialect of the country, was called by the same name as the black of the eye, viz., chemia—by which he seems to intimate that the word chemia in the Egyptian language signified black, and that the country, Egypt, might take its denomination from the blackness of the soil.

“But the etymology and grammatical signification of the name is not so easily dispatched. The critics and antiquaries, among whom it has been a great subject of inquiry, will not let it pass without some further disquisition. Instead of black some will have it denote originally secret or occult; and hence derive it from the Hebrew chaman or haman, a ‘mystery,’ whose radix is cham. And, accordingly, Plutarch observes that Egypt, in the same sacred dialect, is sometimes wrote in Greek chamia; whence the word is easily deduced further from Cham, eldest son of Noah, by whom Egypt was first peopled after the Deluge, and from whom, in the Scripture style, it is called the land of Cham or Chem. Now, that Chaman, or haman, properly signifies secret, appears from the same Plutarch, who, mentioning an ancient author named Menethes Sibonata, who had asserted that Ammon and Hammon were used to denote the god of Egypt, Plutarch takes this occasion to observe that in the Egyptian language anything secret or occult was called by the same name hammon. Lastly, the learned Bochart, keeping the same sense of the word, chooses to derive it from the Arabic Chema, or Kema, to hide, adding that there is an Arabic book of secrets called by the same name Kemi.”

Boerhaave’s conclusion is that chemistry or alchemy owes its name to the circumstance that it was a sacred art, to be treasured as a religious secret by the priesthood, and not to be divulged to the laity.

The “Arabic book of secrets” referred to in the foregoing passage is probably the same of which Zosimus writes in an epistle mentioned by George Synkellos, a writer of the eighth century A.C. This epistle is interesting inasmuch as it relates a myth as to the origin of the sciences in general; the myth is as follows: “The ancients and the Scriptures declare that certain angels, attracted by the beauty of women, descended to earth, and instructed them in the works of nature; for this they were banished from heaven and condemned to perpetual exile. From the commerce between these angels and women sprang the race of Giants. The book from which the angels taught the arts was called Chemi.” Berthelot observes in regard to this passage, “The name of the book Chema is found in Egypt under the name Chemi as the title of a treatise cited in a papyrus of the twelfth dynasty which is said to have been recommended by the writer of the papyrus in question to his son. It is probable that the subject of the book was quite different; chemi was an [p.293] ancient title, adopted later to give authority to certain writings, as happened very often in ancient times.”

A derivation that enjoyed a long popularity is that of J. Hoffman; according to Hoffmann chemeia comes from chemi, meaning “black,” and refers to an art in the processes of which a black substance was used. This black substance, whatever it may have been, was regarded by the ancients, Hoffman believes, as the materia prima, the primal matter, which the adepts sought to obtain by the ignition, combustion, decomposition, etc., of various minerals. It was also known as the “Black Preparation,” the “Black Stone,” and “Perfect Black.” According to this view, then, chemeia would mean “the preparation of blackness.” It is certain that colors played an important part in the practice of transmutation, and that the various color changes observed at different stages in the process were regarded as indicative of what the alchemist might expect in the progress of his work. Redgrove, in his Alchemy, Ancient and Modern, quotes the following from Espagnet’s Hermetic Arcanum: “The means or demonstrative signs are colors, succinctly and orderly affecting the matter and its affections and demonstrative passions, whereof there are three special ones (as critical) to be noted; to these some add a fourth. The first is black, which is called the Crow’s Head, because of its extreme blackness, whose crepusculum showeth the beginning of the action of the fire of nature and solution, as the blackest midnight showeth the perfection of liquefaction and confusion of the elements. Then the grain putrefies and is corrupted, that it may be the more apt for generation. The white color succeedeth to the black—-,” etc. It is also interesting to note that in alchemical literature Osiris, the Egyptian god of the Underworld (hence, the world of darkness, blackness), is often mentioned as the “Black One”; and the “Black Preparation” is frequently designated symbolically as the “Grave of Osiris,” the “Corpse of Osiris,” etc.

J. Campbell Brown (History of Chemistry) is inclined to accept this derivation rather than the one that traces the word to a Greek source. He says: “The term ‘alchemy’ or, as it was spelt until the nineteenth century ‘alchymy,’ derived from the Arabic, is said to have come originally from a Greek word (chyma) signifying things melted and poured out. It is more probably derived from Khem ‘the land of Egypt,’ which was so named from the dark color of its soil, composed of crumbling syenite. Alchemy, according to this derivation, is the ‘art of the black country,’ the Black Art. In Egypt it was carried to a high degree of development, and consequently the theory of the origin of the name receives support from the philological character of the derivatives—at, the Arabic definite article, and Khem—dark, because the term first came into use when the Arabian Mohammedans dominated Egypt, learned the secrets of the temple laboratories, and spread throughout the civilized parts of western Europe the knowledge they had thus acquired.”

An interesting observation bearing on the Khem theory occurs in Lewis Spence’s Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt. It is as follows: “It has been averred, with much likelihood, that the science of alchemy originated in ancient Egypt. The derivation is usually referred to the Arabic al khemeia, but it also has been stated that it may be derived from the Egyptian word Kemi, which means ‘black’ or ‘dusty’ and which was applied to the country on account of the dark color of the mud which forms the soil on each side of the Nile. The Christian Egyptians or Copts, it is thought, transmitted the word in the from Kheme to the Greeks, Romans, Syrians and Arabs. At an early period in their history the Egyptians had attained to considerable skill in the working of metals, and according to certain Greek writers they employed quicksilver in the separation of gold and silver from the native ore. The ditritus which resulted from these processes formed a black powder which was supposed to contain within itself the individualities of the various metals that had contributed to its composition. In some manner this powder was identified with the body which the god Osiris was known to possess in the underworld, and to both were attributed magical qualities, and both were thought to be sources of light and power. ‘Thus,’ says Dr. Budge, ‘side by side with the growth of skill in performing the ordinary processes of metal work in Egypt, there grew up in that country the belief that magical powers existed in fluxes and alloys; and the art of manipulating the metals, and the knowledge of the chemistry of the metals and of their magical powers were described by the name Khemeia, that is to say ‘the preparation of the black ore.’ which was regarded as the active principle of the transmutation. If this ingenious theory be correct we have here not only the genesis of practical alchemy but also the origin of a part of alchemical science which until recently has been strangely neglected. The allusion is to spiritual alchemy which employed the same symbols and language as were used in the practical science, and which is credited with containing, in allegory, many a deep psychical and mystical secret.”2

The derivation of the word from the Greek is due to the German philologist Mahn, and has been adopted by a number of etymologists. The theory states that khemia or khemeia was probably written for khumeia, denoting a mingling, an infusion, from khymos, a liquid, a juice, especially the juice of plants; connected with this is the work keein, to make flowing, to make liquid, to pour, which is akin to the Latin fundere.

M. M. Pattison Muir, the brilliant author of a number of interesting works on the history of chemistry, offers the following statement in his Story of Alchemy: “A commentator on Aristotle, writing in the fourth century A.D., calls certain instruments used for fusion and calcination khuika organa, that is, instruments for melting and pouring. Hence, probably came the adjective chyic or chymic, and at a somewhat later time the word chemia, as the name of that art which deals with calcinations, fusions, meltings and the like.”

If the chymos derivation be the correct one, then evidently, the Latin chemia and the English chemistry should be written, to be consistent with their etymology, chymia and chymistry, that is, as they were written before Boerhave, in the eighteenth century, recommended the mode of spelling which was later adopted and which prevails at the present day.

1 It must be borne in mind, however, that the mediaeval alchemists were ignorant of what they owed to Greek and Egyptian sources. The original Greek texts, from which the Arabians freely borrowed, sometimes through Syriac texts, were not translated into Latin until the sixteenth century and after; Greek was a “dead” language indeed during the greater part of the Middle Ages to European scholars with few exceptions.

2 This idea, that the writings of the alchemists must be understood as allegories dealing with profound spiritual “truths,” and that they did not deal with chemical operations of any kind, in other words, that there was a “spiritual” alchemy distinct from what is ordinarily known as alchemy, has been found to be untenable, and is now maintained by a few extreme theosophists only.

Image, not in original text, added from source shown above. In the original text, the footnotes 1 and 2 were at the foot of page 292 and 293 respectively, originally indicated by an asterisk and a dagger. Text from The National Druggist (1919), 49, 292-293. (source)


Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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