The Grammarphobia Blog

“Aluminum” vs. “aluminium”

Q: I’m a Brit and I take issue with the way one-eyed Americans spell the metal that the rest of the world calls “aluminium.” Look at the periodic table. Can you find another element ending in “um” instead of “ium”?

A: You’re right that Americans are in the minority on this one, but we’re not entirely alone. Canadians, for example, call the metal “aluminum” too.

And there are several other elements in the periodic table that end in “um”: molybdenum, tantalum, platinum, and lanthanum. But the fact that most of the other elements end in “ium” isn’t much of an argument.

So why do the Americans use one “i” and the Brits two for this word? Here’s the story.

In 1808 Sir Humphry Davy, the British chemist who discovered the metal, named it “alumium.” With just one “i” and an “ium” ending, it straddled the two competing versions we have today.

Four years later, however, Davy changed his mind and gave the metal the name “aluminum” (yup, the one-“i” American version). In his book Elements of Chemical Philosophy, published in 1812, Davy wrote, “As yet Aluminum has not been obtained in a perfectly free state. “

But later that same year other scientists decided “aluminum” didn’t sound sufficiently Latin, so they began calling it “aluminium.” Here’s a quote from the Quarterly Review: “Aluminium, for so we shall take the liberty of writing the word, in preference to aluminum, which has a less classical sound.”

The scientists also perhaps believed the “ium” ending was more consistent with other elements. However, “aluminum,” as we know, isn’t the only element to break the “ium” pattern. Not to mention the elements with entirely different names, like gold, copper, zinc, nickel, sulfur, hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, boron, argon, krypton, iron, tungsten, neon, mercury, iodine, tin, and others.

At any rate, throughout the 19th century, both “aluminum” and “aluminium” could be found in the US as well as in Britain, though the “ium” ending was predominant in British English.

This was such a rare metal in the 1800s, though, that we’re not talking about a common household word; it was mainly known among scientists.

Only at the turn of the century, when production on a large scale became practical, did the name of the metal start becoming a familiar word. And that’s when Americans – after some to-ing and fro-ing, of course – began to clearly prefer the simpler “aluminum” (which had been favored, incidentally, by Noah Webster).

Eventually “aluminum” became the standard name for the metal in North America and was officially adopted in the 1920s by the American Chemical Society.

Elsewhere, though, scientists generally use “aluminium.” The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry uses “aluminium” as the standard international spelling but also recognizes “aluminum” as a variant.

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