Smuggling In Undeclared Articles

September, 2020 Word Stories

When astronomers refer to the famous Almagest written by Claudius Ptolemy, they may not realize they are repeating themselves. Ptolemy’s “greatest” work (Greek Megistē) was preserved for centuries in an Arabic version called The Greatest (al-Majisṭī). Saying “the Algamest” therefore amounts to saying “the the greatest”. The Arabic definite article al- has managed to stow away unnoticed, as part of the English word. This happens more than you might expect. Most people think of Allah as a personal name, for example, when it really just means “the God”, and many learned works have been written about the Alcoran (i.e., “the the Quran”). The words discussed in this instalment have all smuggled the Arabic article al- into common English, through various linguistic trade routes.


The word alchemy came into English through the Old French alquemie and the Medieval Latin alkimia, derived from the Arabic al-kīmiyā’ (“the alchemy”). Although the trail starts to get cold at this point, the Arabic seems to come from the Ancient Greek khēmeia, meaning “fusion of metals”. It was a practice that combined esoteric speculation with attempts to transform common materials into precious substances like gold. The Middle English poem Piers Plowman therefore refers in the 1400s to “Experimentz of alkamye.” The word alchemy soon became a noun used to describe the results of such work, including any metalwork that was golden in colour. John Milton therefore refers in Paradise Lost (1667) to “the sounding alchemie” of shining angelic horns. Over time, the connection of alchemy with secret knowledge and private experiments added a connotation of trickery and scheming. The 1591 English edition of the epic poem Orlando Furioso accordingly accuses false teachers of leading good Christians astray with “Alcumie”.   The German mineralogist Georg Agricola was the first to drop the Arabic definite article al- from alchemy, in the 1530s. His influential Latin writings on chymia and chymista helped European scientists develop a distinction between occult alchemy on the one hand and scientific chemistry on the other. As William R. Newman and Lawrence M. Principe show in their account “Alchemy vs. Chemistry: The Etymological Origins of a Historiographic Mistake” (1998), this great divorce was long and acrimonious, and didn’t really succeed until well into the 17th century. Even then, people like Isaac Newton were doing “alchemical” work with theological and philosophical goals. Because the emerging science of chemistry eventually gained respect partly by distancing itself from alchemy, though, Newton’s tireless experiments with alchemy remained unpublished and unstudied for centuries.


The origin of the word alcohol is ultimately found in Arabic. According to most sources, alcohol comes from al-kuḥul (literally “the kohl”), kohl being a term for eye shadow made of fine metallic or mineral powder. The word entered sixteenth-century English through medieval Latin with its original Arabic meaning, which was then extended to mean a very fine powder of almost any type. When doctors used rusty metal filings as medicine, for example, they called the fine red dust Alcohol martis (“powder of Mars”).

The meaning of the word alcohol was further expanded around the same time to describe a “spirit or extract.” English editions of medical books like the Sclopotarie (1590) or the Aurora thus refer to the practice of distilling the alcohol of wine. This sense lived on in phrases like “the alcohol of poetry” (Esme Wingfield-Stratford, 1913; Peter Kussi, 1991), but by the 19th century the word alcohol most often referred specifically to the intoxicating ethanol found in alcoholic drinks.


The word algorithm typically conjures up images of high-tech computer systems performing complex tasks, like correcting our grammar or guessing what kinds of online ads might catch our eyes. People used algorithms in computation long before computers came along, though, and the roots of the word algorithm stretch back to the ancient East.

Our so-called “Arabic” numerals are actually of Indian origin, but they were indeed introduced to medieval Europeans by Arab and Persian mathematicians, including notably the Persian Muḥammad Khwārizmī , whose name was Arabized as al-Khwārizmī. His ninth-century treatise On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals was translated into medieval Latin as Algoritmi de numero Indorum, or “Al-Khwārizmī on the Hindu Art of Reckoning” (Algoritmi being a Latin transliteration of the name al-Khwārizmī). Over time, casual readers assumed with increasing frequency that Algoritmi meant “calculations”, which constituted the main topic of the work. The final -i of the author’s name was then misanalyzed as a Latin noun’s plural ending, and so the pseudo-back-formation algorismus was coined in medieval Latin. This new word entered medieval French as algorithme (under the mistaken assumption that the Latin s sound represented a lost Greek th sound), and finally entered English as algorithm. The word’s story is therefore a remarkably long chain of randomness and imprecision - the exact opposite of what a good algorithm should usually be.

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