Increase your English word-hoard by learning terms associated with the ancient pseudo-science of alchemy

At The Wording Desk

Bill Casselman

Wizards, adepts of sorcery, stirrers of strange cauldrons, don pointy hats and star-flecked robes, wave wands and hold bubbling beakers high! For today we examine the origin of words associated with alchemy, precursor of modern chemistry and metallurgy during medieval times and the early Renaissance.

Under our etymological microscope and into focus come words like retort, alembic, crucible, athanor and the word chemistry itself whose root may hark back to pharaonic times.

Alchemy, of course, was NOT scientific, being encumbered with ancient magic, Hermeticism, astrological gibberish and hidden symbols. The pseudo-science’s principal fallacy was universal transformation, a proofless notion that base metals like iron could be turned into gold and silver, through the discovery of a preternatural catalyst called a “philosopher’s stone” or “the alkahest,” a universal solvent.

The Real Name of Paracelsus

I claim a side path here to mention the man who gave us the word alkahest. He was a Swiss German alchemist who called himself Paracelsus (CE 1493-1541). He had very little Arabic, but was sufficiently acquainted with Arabic forms to name his universal solvent. So he simply made up an Arabic-sounding word, alkahest!

Although Paracelsus dabbled in pseudo-science and utter piffle, the dizzy Swiss did make legitimate contributions to science, especially in early toxicology. I want also to mention him here because he had one of the most resonantly pompous medieval German names ever recorded in print, his birth name being Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim. Ja wohl!

Immortality Juice!

Another alchemical fancy posited that a wondrous elixir of life might someday be distilled from dripping alembics into a flask of droplets whose ingestion would deliver to time-bound humans the gift of eternal life. This was but a thaumaturgical whim, that is to say, to speak more plainly, mere capricious mirificence. Okay, I fibbed! I just wanted to use that extremely rare noun mirificence, because it is one of the few synonyms for thaumaturgy (wonder working). One of the Indian names for this water of eternal life was Amrit Ras which means "immortality juice."

But, in spite of brains chockablock with poppycock, alchemists did develop some basic lab techniques, theories, and procedures of experimentation which are still in use.

Etymology Old when Amarna was New
To suggest that the origin of the word alchemy is still in dispute is to indulge in etymological understatement extraordinaire. But the basic evolution is generally agreed upon.

English alchemy < Old French alquimie < medieval Latin alchimia < Arabic الكيمياء al-kimia < Ancient Greek χημεία chemeia or χημία chemia where it meant ‘the transforming’ (of gold and silver from baser metals).

Plutarch, a Greek historian (CE 46- 120), uses Χημία as a name for Egypt, which may stem from one name the ancient Egyptians called their country, namely Kmt, probably pronounced Kemet, literally ‘black land’ from the Egyptian hieroglyphic kem ‘black,’ referring to the Nile Valley’s rich, dark soil, in contrast to the much paler desert sand.

Later χημία may have become, as some etymologists like to say, "polluted" by another noun, the Hellenistic Greek χυμεία chymeia ‘act of pouring or infusion made from plant juices.’ The ancient Greek source was χυμός chymos ‘juice, sap,’ ultimately from the ancient Greek verb χεῖν chein ‘to pour.’ Still in use in modern English physiological vocabulary is chyme, the noun that names the goopy matter into which food is converted in the stomach before it passes into the small intestine.

An athanor was a small lab furnace in which charcoal in a tower was fed down into a fire providing reasonably constant heat for chemical procedures requiring it. It was simply one of the classical Arabic words for furnace, al-tannūr; compare other Semitic cognates in Hebrew and Aramaic where the triliteral nūr means ‘fire.

A medieval Latin form was crucibulum or crucibolum, prime meaning ‘night-lamp,’ then a melting pot for metals. Later a crucible was an earthenware vessel used for fusing metals. The original medieval Latin word may have been crassipulum ‘grease-burner;’ compare Latin crassus ‘fat’ and crassa ‘grease.’ It appears the root became popularly associated with Latin crux, crucis ‘cross.’

An alchemical apparatus used for distilling, consisting of two connected vessels, a typically gourd-shaped cucurbit containing the substance to be distilled, and a receiver or flask in which the condensed product is collected. Sometimes the long neck of the flask receiver was made cold with snow, ice, or cold water in order to hasten the condensation.

The etymology is English alembic > Anglo-Norman > alembic, Middle French alambic  > post-classical Latin alembicus, alembicum > Arabic al-anbīq (al ‘the’ + anbīq vessel for distilling < Hellenistic Greek ἄμβικ- , ἄμβιξ vessel narrow towards the brim for distilling  < possibly from ancient Greek ἄμβων ambon ‘raised lip, edge’ + the common object suffix -ιξ  -iks. Compare an ancient Greek word for a small cup, κύλιξ kylix.

The retort took the place of the alembic. A retort was a beaker with a long, tubular, downward curving, bent neck used by alchemists, then by chemists, for distillation. Its name refers to the bent neck and is medieval German Retorte > Classical Latin retortus ‘bent back,’ past participle of retorquere ‘to twist, to bend back’ from whose base Latin verb torquere modern English gets a noun like torque.The prefix re- is Latin 'again, anew' and indicates that the action named in the verb is repeated.

The metallic element cobalt was named by the copper miners of the Hartz Mountains in Germany after evil spirits called Kobolds. Cobalt was also called fools’ copper because it bore a false copper ore. Cobalt was considered uselessness and unhealthy because it is frequently found mixed with arsenic, and because it resembled silver but was not.

A cauldron is a large kettle or boiler with a clear-cut etymological path from Latin caldarium Roman word for a hot-bath through French and Spanish forms like Spanish calderon and Anglo-Norman caudron and doublet derivations like standard French chaudière ‘kettle.’

As we tiptoe now, Theseus-like, out of the wizard’s grotto, past fat vat, sly chalice, odd goblet and mystic grail, fitting it is to recall the witches’ spell from Act 4, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, for it remembers alchemical days, and is besides rife with the Bard's word-conjuring magic:

“Round about the cauldron go;  
In the poison’d entrails throw.  
Toad, that under cold stone   
Days and nights hast thirty one  
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,  
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.  

     Double, double toil and trouble;
     Fire burn and cauldron bubble.  

Fillet of a fenny snake,  
In the cauldron boil and bake;  
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,  
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,  
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,  
Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing,  
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.  

     Double, double toil and trouble;  
     Fire burn and cauldron bubble. 

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,  
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf        
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark, 
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,     
Liver of blaspheming Jew,       
Gall of goat, and slips of yew 
Sliver’d in the moon’s eclipse,
Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips,          
Finger of birth-strangled babe             
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,       
Make the gruel thick and slab:           
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,           
For the ingredients of our cauldron.”

Bill Casselman, March 02, 2017

Text copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman


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