Monday, August 13, 2012

Victims of an Ancient Spell

The question normally thrown at me is “Why do you pronounce it that way?” When what should be asked is, “what’s with the weird spelling?” I refer, of course, to the element with the atomic number of 13—Alumin(i)um.

Lots of words are pronounced differently between the U.S. and the U.K. Most have the same spelling (the ‘either’ ‘tomato’ ‘advertisement’ ‘controversy’ rages on) some are said differently because of different spelling. In England, and most of the world, element 13 has an extra letter.

Alumin(i)um was actually named before it was discovered. British physicist and chemical guru Humphry Davy was trying to isolate the metal from the mineral alumina in 1808 and proposed that if successful it be named Alumium, then changed his mind to make it Aluminum (strike one for the US spelling).

Davy was quite the element celebrity of the time having previously isolated the elements potassium, sodium, calcium, strontium, barium, and magnesium.

Devotees could hardly wait for his next –ium discovery but then he upset his fan base by dropping the last “i” for element 13. Giving the metal a non-ium ending created, literally, hardly any contention amongst everyday folk. People the world over barely raised an eyebrow and many just put in the “I” because they expected it to be there. So there were two spellings and pronunciations. It’s not like they were ever confused by what they were referring to.

Webster dictionaries in the U.S. actually listed the –ium spelling all through the 19th Century, but the largest U.S. manufacturer of the material preferred the shorter spelling and in the mid 1920s, The American Chemical Society decided there was no room for “i” in ium, and officially adopted the spelling as Aluminum.

However, in 1990 the –ium ending was officially accepted by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemists (IUPAC), (strike one for the Brits spelling) and it is used in most of the world. The IUPAC actually lists both spellings on its periodic table though (for you nitpickers out there) Aluminum is listed as an ‘also known as’. Incidentally, it’s also not the only element with an a.k.a. The debate over whether its caesium or cesium just never ends.

There is little (i.e. nothing) to substantiate the story of the American Chemical Society representative who, at a loss for words when asked for the official ending of element number 13 said “…um…” thereby condemning forever the U.S. spelling to be shorter. Seldom addressed is the question of why Humphry Davy suddenly broke with his own tradition by leaving the “i” out element 13’s name. Perhaps sudden bitterness at his parents having left the “e” out of both his?

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