Wednesday, March 25, 2009


In my last post I dabbled in chemistry, so I thought it made sense to discuss the origin of the word.

Today we might view chemistry as real science, as opposed to the unrealistic pursuit of a way to turn common metals into gold - alchemy. However, both the word and the discipline of chemistry derived from alchemy:

1605, originally "alchemy;" the meaning "natural physical process" is 1646, and the
scientific study not so called until 1788.
And from the Columbia Encyclopedia:

The alchemists became obsessed with their quest for the secret of transmutation; some adopted deceptive methods of experimentation, and many gained a livelihood from hopeful patrons. As a result, alchemy fell into disrepute. However, in the searching experimental quests of the alchemists chemistry had its beginnings; indeed, the histories of alchemy and chemistry are closely linked. Transmutation of elements has been accomplished in modern chemistry.
What is the origin of the word "alchemy"? Klein gives the following in his CEDEL:

alchemy, n. medieval chemistry. -- OF. alquemie (13th cent.), alchimie (14th cent.) (F. alchimie), fr. ML. alchemia, fr. Arab. al-kimiya, fr. al-, 'the', and MGk. chimeia, chimia, 'the art of the black land (Egypt)', fr. Gk. Chimia, 'Black-land, Egypt', fr. Egypt. khem, khame, 'black'. The derivation from Gk. chymeia , 'pouring', from the stem of cheein, 'to pour', is folk etymology. See W. Muss-Arnolt, Transactions of the American Philological Association, vol. XXIII, p. 149
Muss-Arnolt writes in that article that the Greek word Chimia is

borrowed from the Egyptian (Coptic) kam (chame), 'black'

Now when I see Egypt and kam or khame - I can't help but thinking of חם Cham, the son of Noach, the father of Mitzrayim - the biblical Egypt. And indeed, in Tehillim (78:51, 105:23,27, 106:32) Egypt is called Cham.

It's important to note that Muss-Arnolt wrote this article in 1892. Doing a search of articles and books from the 19th century and early 20th century finds many sources that connect Cham and Khemia. For example, from this 1929 book:

It appears to be the Land of Kham or Ham, the oldest traditional name for Egypt, and a usual name for that land and its people in the Hebrew Old Testament ... The Greeks called Egypt sometimes Khemia or Khimia (Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, 33)

Now I'm certainly aware that not everyone agrees with this theory. This 1812 book already writes that "the derivation of Chemia from this son of Noah, rest with me on grounds too slight and fanciful to be implicitly relied on". And since Noach's curse of the "dark" Cham and his son Canaan was often used to justify the slavery of blacks, it's not surprising that many more modern sources would challenge the whole proposition, including the etymology. For example, David M. Goldenberg's 2003 book "The Curse of Ham" spends many pages discussing the issue. He mentions a possible connection:

A derivation of Ham (ham) from kmt 'Egypt', also seemed like a good choice despite the differences between the first and last letters of the two words, and scholars until about a generation ago entertained the notion that Ham was a Hebraized form of this Egyptian word for "Egypt"...Not only Coptic documents provide us this information, but Plutarch (d. after 120 CE) does too. He noted that the Egyptians called Egypt "Chemia". With the loss of the final t and the realization of k as kh or the Greek [chi], the word looked very much like the biblical Ham. This theory too had more than phonology on its side. First, from a political-geographic perspective, the extent of Egypt's rule during the New Kingdom is neatly circumscribed by the four areas that the Bible allocates to Ham's sons...
However, he clearly rejects the theory:

Despite the attractions of the various theories, however, not one of these etymological suggestions is acceptable.
He goes on to give a thorough argument, which includes the fact that the Hebrew letter chet "is not transliterated at all or is transliterated by a vowel" in Greek - as in Noach נח becoming "Noah".

He concludes:

One thing is, however, absolutely clear. The name Ham is not related to the Hebrew or to any Semitic word meaning "dark," "black," or "heat" or to the Egyptian word meaning "Egypt". To the Early Hebrews, then, Ham did not represent the father of hot, black Africa and there is no indication from the biblical story that God intended to condemn black-skinned people to eternal slavery.
While I agree that the Bible did not justify the slavery of Africans, I'm still not fully convinced of the etymological proof. People from one language can refer to another nation by a word that sounds like what they call themselves, without fully matching up with the lingustic laws that generally determine word borrowings. Just look at how the Europeans "converted" the indigenous place names when they came to the New World. Some are so far off that it's hard to even see a connection (for example see here for the etymologies of the U.S. state names).

One person who did believe that there might be a connection between Cham and Khemia was Yitzhak Avineri. In a 1945 article published in Yad HaLashon (page 202), he complains about how recently the spelling of the Hebrew word for chemistry - chimiya - has changed from חימיה (with a chet) to כימיה (with a kaf). While the linguist pushing for the change base it on the Arabic cognate al-kimiya, he gives two proofs: 1) that chimiya might originate either in the chum (dark) color of the Nile soil, or be related to Cham, and 2) everyone pronounces the word chimiya, not kimiya. If it was to be spelled with a kaf, it would require a dagesh in the beginning, making it kimiya (my guess is the pronunciation is influenced by those of European languages, such as the Russian khimiya.) Avineri quotes a couple of dictionaries that still spell the word with a chet, but the new spelling won out, and only כימיה is found today.

No comments: