Aluminum VS. Aluminium: The Etymology of the “um” and “ium” Debate

The soft, silvery white chemical element in the boron group with an atomic number 13 and the symbol AI has long been the cause of a word feud between the North American Countries (America and Canada) and most of the rest of the world. So, how did this aluminum vs. aluminium clash start? Looking back on the etymology of this word gives a clear explanation to how this spelling difference got set into place.

The Origin of Aluminum

Sir Humphry Davy, a British chemist, discovered this metal in 1808. He also discovered and named sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium, barium, and boron; lots of “ium” usage in those names, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Davy originally gave this element the name aluminum after the mineral alumina, whose name derive from the base alum which means “bitter salt” in Latin. This original spelling straddles the two competing versions we have today.

By 1812, when Davy published his book Chemical Philosophy he had changed the spelling to aluminum. As in the American version with one “i” and ending in “um,” aluminum. However, later that same year another anonymous scientist wrote an objection to Davy’s spelling aluminum in a British political-literacy journal, Quarterly Review. This other scientist decided that Davy’s spelling didn’t sound sufficiently Latin, and proposed the name aluminium, stating “for so we shall take the liberty of writing the word, in preference to aluminum, which has a less classical sound.” Many people, this anonymous scientist included, thought that the “ium” ending was more consistent with other elements; much like the others named by Davy.

Aluminum Periodic Table

The Parting of the Ways

Since 1812, the spelling has been an even mix of using the “um” and “ium” endings throughout the 19th century in both the U.S. and in Britain. Seeing as this was such a rare metal back then, it wasn’t a common household word, known mostly among scientists. As the element became more available and common, the “ium” usage was seen as more predominate across Britain and the rest of the world.

Americans however, started using Davy’s original “um” usage, which was favored by Noah Webster, the infamous dictionary master. While both spelling usage was used in America, aluminum was officially adopted in the 1920s by the American Chemical Society. It’s clear that Webster’s preferred spelling had an influence on the spelling of this word, seeing as his dictionary was a frequent consultant for journalists and professionals alike.  Britain. Seeing as this was such a rare metal back then, it wasn’t a common household word, known mostly among scientists. As the element became more available and common, the “ium” usage was seen as more predominate across Britain and the rest of the world.

How to Say Aluminum

Phonetically, the correct pronunciation of aluminum is “alʊmɪnəm,” while the pronunciation for aluminium is “ælʊmɪniəm.” Aluminum is currently the favored pronunciation of the general public in America and Canada, yet aluminum still stands throughout the rest of the English-speaking world.

American and Canadian English differ significantly in linguistic rules, and there are nearly 4,000 words spelled differently between Britain and North America. British English keeps spellings inherited from other languages like French and German, while American English usually focuses on spelling words based on how they sound when spoken. These differences became popularized in the 1700s and 1800s with the printing of “An American Dictionary of the English Language” by Noah Webster in North America and “A Dictionary of the English Language” by Samuel Johnson.

However you prefer to pronounce the word representing this chemical element, you likely interact with it every day, from tin foil for cooking in your oven to riding in an airplane. The fascinating origin of aluminum is just one part of the story as scientists and manufacturers around the world mine this product from the Earth’s crust to provide the building blocks of 21st-century society. 

Where the Aluminum Debate Stands Today

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) officially standardized on aluminium in 1990, though it hasn’t changed the way that Americans spell it for day to day purposes. Even though scientists generally use “ium” spelling, the IUPAC does recognize the “um” spelling as a variant. It seems a fair compromise.

While both the “um” and the “ium” endings are both accepted forms of spelling, the debate of “who is right” wages on. It’s clear that neither side is going to give up the way they spell this word.

Here at Premier Engineered Products, we’ll stick with aluminum die casting.  But hey, we can handle aluminium too! Learn more about the design options of our aluminum die casting.

By Leonard Cordaro, President of Premier Engineered Products

Source: World Wide Words

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