In a post a couple of weeks ago, I talked about one of the many differences between British and American English—their choice of singular vs. plural treatment of collective nouns. Today’s post is about a spelling and pronunciation difference.
The Professor just finished reading The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, by Sam Kean. Seriously. She is always reading these weird, semi-boring books about things like the evolution of the metropolitan sewer system in modern history, or about some awful disease (explored in excruciating detail—scurvy was the latest) or about some bizarre cultural, gastronomic or sexual practice from somewhere in the world at some point in history. (Don’t even ask me about the one where somewhere in the world they cut off the top of a monkey’s skull and eat its brains while it’s still alive.) While I would more or less rather slit my wrists and bleed out than read an entire book about scurvy or the periodic table, I get two great benefits from her unquenchable thirst for esoteric knowledge. First of all, this pretty much makes her a walking encyclopedia of arcane information. You’d be surprised how handy this can be when the occasional need for some little-known fact arises.¹
What I really love, though, is that she reads me all the good parts! I am treated to all the cleverest and most interesting portions of these books without having to endure the rest.² Because she knows me well, “all the good parts” naturally include any etymologies mentioned.
That’s how I learned why Brits (and everyone else in the English-speaking world but us) say “aluminium” and Americans say “aluminum.”
Aluminium/aluminum was so named because it was initially extracted from alum in 1825. For the first 60 years that it was around, it was difficult to purify and was considered a precious metal. According to the book, “…the minor emperor Napoleon III reserved a prized set of aluminium cutlery for special guests at banquets. (Less favored guests used gold knives and forks.)” In 1886, one Charles Hall discovered a process that used electricity to free aluminum from the compound in which it was contained. He went on to found Alcoa in Pittsburgh. The price to manufacture aluminum products plummeted. Now, after you drink a soda, you throw away/recycle what would have initially been about $265 worth of aluminum (in today’s dollars). It’s the real thing indeed.
And the name difference? In the early 19th century, chemists used both spellings, but eventually chose the spelling that was analogous to barium, magnesium, sodium and strontium. We don’t know whether the first time it was spelled on Alcoa promotional literature as “aluminum” rather than “aluminium” was a mistake, but Charles Hall liked it. He thought it aligned his product more with that classy metal platinum. Kean says, “His new metal caught on so quickly and grew so economically important that ‘aluminum’ became indelibly stamped on the American psyche.”
¹ We also totally kill at team trivia.
² If I’m being honest, the boring parts are useful too. I sometimes struggle with insomnia, and she reads me to sleep.
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