Element 13

Differences between UK English and American English are always interesting to me. Often they are also confusing. Sometimes a completely different word is used [e.g. “rubbish” and “garbage”]. Minor changes to spelling [e.g. “color” and “colour” or “traveling” and “travelling”] are no big deal. Likewise small changes in pronunciation [often just a change of stress like “garage”, for example, or maybe the Anglicization of a French pronunciation, like “penchant”]. But sometimes spelling and pronunciation both change.

An example is the metal Aluminium, which in the US is called Aluminum. The spelling is changed by the loss of the second “i” and the pronunciation changes because the stress is moved from the first “i” to the first “u”. I have always assumed that my trans-Atlantic cousins were just propagating an error, but I am now having second thoughts …

It had always seemed obvious to me that the English spelling must be correct, as that is consistent with numerous other elements: Magnesium, Sodium, Calcium, Uranium – the list goes on.

Some time ago I heard the explanation for the difference. It seems that, about a hundred years ago, the American Aluminium Corporation was being established. A large batch of stationery – letterhead, envelopes etc. – was produced, but there was a printing error. The second “i” was omitted. This was not noticed for some time, by then damage was done and the new name stuck.

It was good to have an answer to the mystery. Or, rather, it would be, if that story were true. In doing some research for this blog, I found no evidence that it is. It would appear to be an urban myth. So, what is the real explanation?

It seems that, when Aluminium was discovered [by Humphry Davy in the UK in1808], spelling was less than rigorous and both names were used interchangeably. However, there is a strong argument as to why the American form is most logical:

There is [or was] a convention that, when an element was discovered by extraction from its oxide, its name is created by modifying the name of the oxide mineral. Many oxide minerals end in a letter “a”; the convention dictates that the element’s name is derived by replacing this with “um”. So, we have Magnesia yielding Magnesium, Lanthana yields Lanthanum, Thoria yields Thorium and Alumina yields Aluminum.

I think that I am persuaded.

Now, what about element 16? Is it Sulphur or Sulfur?

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2010/09/23/element-13/