aluminum / aluminium
The preferred spelling of the name of the metal in the United States is aluminum. In Britain, the spelling is usually aluminium. Why the difference? And where did the extra i go (or come from)?
In the late 18th century, French chemists gave the name alumine, or alumina in Latin form, to the white ore we generally know as aluminum oxide today (Al2O3). The Latin form was quickly adopted into English. From Joseph Black’s c.1790 Elements of Chemistry:
The French chemists have given a new name to this pure earth; alumine in French, and alumina in Latin. I confess I do not like this alumina.1
In 1808, British chemist Humphry Davy postulated the existence of a metallic form of alumina ore, which he dubbed alumium. From the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of that year:
Had I been so fortunate as...to have procured the metallic substances I was in search of, I should have proposed for them the names of silicium, alumium, zirconium, and glucium.2
Davy later changed the name to aluminum. He writes in his 1812 Elements of Chemical Philosophy:
As yet Aluminum has not been obtained in a perfectly free state.3
Yet that same year, other British chemists settled on the name aluminium, the ending of which they thought was more consistent with the other elements. From the Quarterly Review of 1812:
Aluminium, for so we shall take the liberty of writing the word, in preference to aluminum, which has a less classical sound.4
This spelling was the one that caught on in Britain.
In America, however, Davy’s original spelling secured a foothold. This probably occurred because Noah Webster favored Davy’s spelling of aluminum in his 1828 dictionary, omitting the aluminium spelling. Both spellings were common in 19th century America. The 1899 Century Dictionary, for example, includes both. From Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language:
ALU’MINA, [...] but recently, chimical [sic] experiments have given reason to believe it to be a metallic oxyd [sic], to the base of which has been given the name aluminum.
ALU’MINUM, n. The name given to the supposed metallic base of alumina.5
In 1925, the American Chemical Society came down firmly on the side of the aluminum spelling, effectively ending the orthographic debate in America and making the split with British English on this point complete.
NOTE: Numerous online sources incorrectly claim that Webster favored the aluminium spelling, but aluminium does not appear in his dictionary at all. Most of these same sources also incorrectly claim that the 1889 Century Dictionary favors the aluminium spelling, but the dictionary lists both without preference.6 These errors undoubtedly stem from a single incorrect source which others have copied without bothering to check the original sources.
5Noah Webster, American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1928), alu-am-ama.
6Century Dictionary Online, 20 Mar 2001, accessed 25 Dec 2008
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton