The Grammarphobia Blog

Druggist or chemist?

Q: In a pharmacy in the US, the person filling the prescriptions is often called a druggist. In England, that person is often called a chemist. How did this come about?

A: “Druggist” is one of many old words that Americans have preserved and the English have generally lost. Others include “skillet,” “sidewalk,” “apartment” (now a “flat” in the UK), “merry-go-round,” and “fall” (the season), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the 17th century, English speakers in both America and England used the word “druggist” for someone who prepares and dispenses medicine (the Scots still do), but the English began switching to “chemist” in the 18th century. (A somewhat older term, “drugger,” is rarely seen now.)

English borrowed the word “druggist” from the French droguiste in the early 1600s. The first example in the OED is from Lanthorne and Candle-Light, a 1608 pamphlet by the Elizabethan writer Thomas Dekker about the tricks of London confidence men:

“Tongues had rather Spit venome on thy lines, then from thy labours (As Druggists doe from poison) medicines gather.”

In the 1600s, according to the OED, a “chemist” was someone who practiced chemistry or alchemy. Here’s an example using both “chemist” and “druggist,” from The Magicall-Astrologicall-Diviner, a 1652 attack on magic by the English Puritan cleric John Gaul:

“Two Chymists had agreed upon a cheat, that one of them should turn druggist and sell strange roots and powders: the other to follow still his gold finding trade” (we’ve expanded the OED citation to add context).

In the mid-1700s, the English began referring to pharmacists as “chemists.” The earliest example in Oxford is from A New Improvement in the Art of Making the True Volatile Spirit of Sulphur (1744), by Ephraim Rinhold Seehl: “The Shops of the Druggists, Chemists, and Apothecaries.”

And here’s an example from Charles Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend (1865): “She arrived in the drug-flavoured region of Mincing Lane, with the sensation of having just opened a drawer in a chemist’s shop.”

By the way, the word “pharmacist,” which is used on both sides of the Atlantic, comes from pharmacia, classical Latin for the preparation of drugs.

The first OED citation is from Dr. Radcliffe’s Practical Dispensatory, a 1721 work by the English medical writer Edward  Strother:

“Who knows these, save the Philosopher, the Anatomist, the Chymist, the Mathematician, the Pharmacist, and the learned Observer?”

As for those other words, we’ve written about them (and many others) in “Stiff Upper Lips,” the chapter on US and UK English in Origins of the Specious, our book about language.

Since the Middle Ages, English speakers have used both “skillet” (1403) and “frying pan” (1382). Americans have kept both, but the British generally threw out the “skillet.” Both used to walk on a “sidewalk” (1739) or a “pavement” (1743), but Americans now use the former and the British the latter. (The dates are from OED citations.)

An “apartment” was the usual word for a suite of rooms in 17th-century England. The British didn’t start using “flat” for such a dwelling until the early 1820s.

Children generally ride on a “merry-go-round” in the US and a “roundabout” in the UK. Which is older? “Roundabout” (1763) is a roundabout way of saying “merry-go-round” (1729).

Finally, the season between summer and winter was once called “autumn” and “fall” on each side of the Atlantic. Americans kept both terms, but “fall” generally fell out of favor in the UK. If you’d like to read more, we’ve written about the subject on our blog.

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