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Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.

Aluminum or Aluminium?

By May 10, 2013

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I've received multiple questions about the naming of element 13, which I call aluminum and most of the world calls aluminium. Why are there two names? Sir Humphry Davy proposed the name aluminum, back before the element was officially discovered. However, the name 'aluminium' was adopted to conform with the -ium names of most other elements. In 1925, the American Chemical Society decided to go back to the original aluminum, so the United States uses a different name from most other countries. The IUPAC periodic table lists both spellings.

Still confused? Here's a little more about the history of aluminum's naming and discovery. Guyton de Morveau (1761) called alum, a base which had been known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, by the name alumine. In 1808, Humphry Davy identified the existence of the metal in alum, which he at first named alumium and later aluminum. Davy knew aluminum existed, but he didn't isolate the element. Friedrich Wöhler isolated aluminum in 1827 by mixing anhydrous aluminium chloride with potassium. Actually, though, the metal was produced two years earlier, though in impure form, by the Danish physicist and chemist Hans Christian Ørsted. Depending on your source, the discovery of aluminum is credited to either Ørsted or Wöhler.

Pictures of Famous Chemists | Aluminum (or Aluminium) Facts
Image: Sir Humphry Davy. Engraving taken from "The Life of Sir Humphry Davy" by John A. Paris, London: Colburn and Bentley, 1831.

Comments

June 14, 2012 at 4:20 am
(1) NIKOLAY says:

Aluminium is for non-american enlishmen like Australians or canadians and uk people but aluminum is for U.S.A people
And if you are not american then maybe you picked it up from some American person!

October 12, 2012 at 12:53 am
(2) Sarah says:

Canadians also pronounce and spell the word aluminum! It must be something that the whole of North America does while the rest of the English speaking world calls it aluminium!

January 25, 2013 at 7:09 am
(3) Kathy says:

The Austrian scientist, Karl Joseph Bayer, who discovered it actually named it Aluminum. The Brits came along after and decided it had to “rhyme” with the other elements on the periodic table and renamed it Aluminium. So who is right? I tend to lean towards to discoverer not those who are more interested in rhyming.

February 18, 2013 at 12:15 pm
(4) Adrian says:

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) officially standardised on aluminium in 1990, though this has done nothing, of course, to change the way people in the US spell it for day to day purposes.

February 20, 2013 at 1:51 pm
(5) Robert Folkerts says:

Having worked in both England and the United States, i prefer aluminium because of the British pronunciation. In the US, Aluminum and alumina are easier to confuse, especially in a lab with noisy equipment. The extra syllable in alu-mini-um makes it easier to hear the difference between the metal from the ceramic. Not a big deal, but occasionally helpful.

March 28, 2013 at 3:02 pm
(6) Jerry says:

Amazing job, Kathy. This is so trivial, but you manage to make it sound political. Is this how you discuss everything that you disagree with?

April 13, 2013 at 3:37 am
(7) Richard says:

Wrong The English chemist Sir Humphrey Davy underlined the existence of the element arguing that “alum” was the salt of an unknown metal which he said should be called ‘ALUMIUM’ NOT ALUMINUM The name was respelt as the more pleasant sounding ‘aluminium’ by later Canadian scientists, So there!!!!

April 20, 2013 at 11:12 am
(8) markelson says:

I have it on the authority of a retired engineer who worked all over the world in the aluminium refining industry for years, that when the Aluminium Corporation of America (ALCOA) was formed, the order for their stationary (letterheads,envelopes, etc) was sent out with a typo – “aluminum”. It was too costly for the then fledgling company to have everything re-printed. Human error. Sounds credible.

May 1, 2013 at 6:42 pm
(9) Chris says:

To be correct, Sir Humphrey original naming was alumium (1807). He then changed his mind to aluminum 5 years later (1812), before scientific consensus was reached on aluminium in the same year (1812).

If one’s policy is to use the original naming, then neither popular versions are correct and you should use “alumium”.
If one’s policy is to use the scientifically agreed version, then you should use “aluminum”.

June 7, 2013 at 2:59 pm
(10) chem teacher says:

IUPAC prefers aluminium. History is fun, but the authority, IUPAC, tells us to use aluminium.

On a side note, if an Italian person is both Italian and European, then why is it odd that a Canadian is a Canadian, but not American? The Americas are continents. Therefore, all people from North America, and South America are Americans; just as Europeans are from Europe.

June 19, 2013 at 10:03 am
(11) Jim says:

And all I came in here to do was find out why my spell checker doesnt recognise aluminium!!! But now i know. Have now spent the best part of half an hour having a history lesson insead of working. But now far more wise.

June 21, 2013 at 3:52 pm
(12) Dan Koehler says:

Englishmen by definition are “non-american”, I have to say the wording of the comment rather annoyed me. I also find Kathy’s comment regarding Carl Josef Bayer to be erroneous given he wasn’t born until nearly some 40 years after Sir Humphry Davy is credited with discovering the element.

July 7, 2013 at 8:18 pm
(13) Richard Schneeberger says:

How interesting!! Dan Koehler, as in, from DeWitt? Crazy coincidence if that is the same person…

All of these are good points, and my chemistry students will be elated to learn this slight (yet very confusing) difference!

Thanks to all of the great research, it sounds like one of “those things” that our world just will agree to disagree on.

July 10, 2013 at 9:09 pm
(14) JingleBat says:

Why IS this even an argument?

Imagine you had a child, and named him Johannes. He grows up, and decides to change his name to Jon. His friends call him Johnny.

First its alumium (Johannes, old official name) then its aluminum (Jon, the most recent official name) then its aluminium (Johnny, the nickname)

Of course, its still useful to call aluminum aluminium sometimes, but….

July 24, 2013 at 6:28 pm
(15) Mary says:

Pot-a-to Pot-ar-to. Tom-a-to Tom-ar-to. Who cares….. Let’s all get a life….

July 28, 2013 at 6:35 pm
(16) Dean says:

“On a side note, if an Italian person is both Italian and European, then why is it odd that a Canadian is a Canadian, but not American? The Americas are continents. Therefore, all people from North America, and South America are Americans; just as Europeans are from Europe.”

You’re confusing country with continent, perhaps even on purpose.

Think about it, the name of our country is The United States of America. Americans have no other name for our nationality, no one says “United Staters”.

August 10, 2013 at 5:28 am
(17) Nicolas says:

It is probably best to use the IUPAC version, since all non english speaking countries will also use the IUPAC name aluminium. This might take away some confusion :-) .

August 13, 2013 at 8:24 am
(18) Blake says:

Sorry Adrian, but as many semi-informed Englishmen, you are twenty years behind. IUPAC adopted Aluminum as an acceptable variant in 1993, both spellings are on the periodic table, and the spelling is split about 50/50 in official documents.

August 25, 2013 at 7:19 am
(19) rich says:

Ur wrong.it was originally alumium, then changed to alumiNium to suit the table, it was never aluminum, only in yankland.
English language is from ENGLAND, what we say goes, like all things “American” it’s just stolen from the rest of the world. Goddam pushy yanks.

August 25, 2013 at 1:09 pm
(20) Hugh says:

Some comments allude to Americans speaking English or American English.
Americans may use a large quantity of English words, but they don’t speak English – they speak American!

August 30, 2013 at 8:08 am
(21) Gordo says:

The Americans can’t say N U C L E A R, they say NUCULAR! How can they be expected to pronounce aluminium properly. Always were a Bolshy lot :-)

August 31, 2013 at 1:25 am
(22) Eric says:

@ Dean there are many things that don’t make sense in the world, this is but one of them. If you’re going to tilt at windmills, find one that is more important.

September 17, 2013 at 7:25 pm
(23) Thrawn says:

Personally, I favor the adjective ‘USAlian’ to describe a person/thing from the USA, but my half-Texan wife doesn’t like it ;) .

September 18, 2013 at 2:45 am
(24) OuttaTownDigger says:

Rich, how ’bout you stop throwing “yank” around and we’ll stop calling you limeys. “Yank” is an offensive term.

September 18, 2013 at 8:39 pm
(25) Maia says:

Some elements don’t end in “ium” now, including the most well-known ones: Oxygen, Hydrogen, Carbon, Gold, Silver, just to name a few.

September 20, 2013 at 4:20 pm
(26) Jim says:

Good job, rich. Teach us dumb “yanks” how to speak English. Now, tell me, what is the definition of the word “ur”? The only one I can find for it is a location in Iraq, but that doesn’t match your context.

September 21, 2013 at 7:47 pm
(27) RobertMurz says:

http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/aluminium.htm

that explains everything. pretty much the man who discovered it had trouble naming it his 2nd attempt was aluminum and 3rd (which he stuck with) was aluminium. therefore “aluminium” is correct. and if americans want to argue that theirs was first then by their logic they should be saying alumium.

also learn to say

1. route correctly pronounced the same way as root
2. nuclear route correctly pronounced new-clee-are
3. Iraq and Iran.

and don’t say anything like “at least we can use capital letters” i did this in the dark and couldn’t see my keyboard. personally i think this is pretty impressive

October 5, 2013 at 11:34 pm
(28) John says:

This has been interesting reading, now as a brit living in America I have a question, why do Americans need to use three words when one will do? for example “that’s a negative” instead of “no”

October 8, 2013 at 10:31 am
(29) Jerry says:

Americans love to hear themselves talk, rarely know what they are talking about, and always believe they are unquestionably correct.
Pride, complete ignorant pride “is the American Dream”
I have likely offended most if not all Americans who read this.
As a Canadian living in the US, I can confirm to the rest of the intelligent universe, education here is not lacking, it’s nonexistent.
Don’t misunderstand me there are intelligent people in the US. They, much like fine diamonds, were created under extreme pressure, against all odds, not because they are “American”, but in spite of it.
You would discover it difficult, to find an American who would agree, or at least admit to it.
But impossible to find one who cares!

October 12, 2013 at 7:37 pm
(30) gmonty says:

TROLOLOL

Jerry props on “being” the first line in your post.

I will be the first to admit that there are many unintelligent people living in the USA but that can be said for any place in the world. It’s all based on your chosen sample. Manipulating statistical data sample pool to provide proof one way or the other is something that has been around for a very long time.

@RobertMurz
Sure many people in the USA say nuke-u-lar instead of nuke-lee-ar but also many do not. Unlike nuclear, however, “route” is a regional dialect thing and pronunciation is based on an individual basis. Is this wrong? Does this NOT happen in the UK? If this never happens anywhere in the UK I bow down to you and accept defeat, however, I know for a fact that pronunciations have been altered just the same in the UK on many words. The day that venturous Englishman sailed across the ocean the language of both groups diverged on their own paths. Just as english Australia and India have made their own changes.

@rich
“English language is from ENGLAND, what we say goes, like all things “American” it’s just stolen from the rest of the world. Goddam pushy yanks.”

Top 100 most absurdly ignorant comments I have ever read on the internet.

October 12, 2013 at 8:06 pm
(31) gmonty says:

John I know what you’re you are talking about. Most Americans actually DO NOT do that. What you are describing is something usually done from a comical or pretentious standpoint or to sound “cool”.

Just did a quick google search and found this which appears to do a good job on showing differences between BrE and AmE as well as describing innovations/adaptations both have made to the language.

http://www.pbs.org/speak/ahead/change/ruining/

I have not read it all but interesting so far.

October 30, 2013 at 1:25 am
(32) Josh says:

It seems that believing the hype and stereotypes of other countries is at least universal.

November 7, 2013 at 10:37 am
(33) Lelia says:

This has been interesting reading, now as a brit living in America I have a question, why do Americans need to use three words when one will do? for example “that’s a negative” instead of “no”

The words ‘that’s a negative’ come from the history of American navigation and use of radio on ships and airplanes (and much later, Citizen Band radios in long haul trucks and in emergency vehicles). The word ‘no’, or ‘nine’ were hard to make out if there was a lot of static (and many other words as well), and so radiomen, pilots and navigators were taught an easier to hear version, saying things like ‘negatory’ or ‘that’s a negative’, or ‘niner’. If there are many versions of this, it is because people agreed to disagree.

November 11, 2013 at 2:21 pm
(34) ezra says:

Americans say everything right and you English people say it all wrong

November 23, 2013 at 6:33 pm
(35) America Is Wrong says:

To everyone saying that it was originally called ‘aluminum’, you’re actually wrong, it was originally named ‘alumium’, then changed to ‘aluminum’, then changed again to ‘aluminium’ (all by the same guy) in order to better match the other elements. This is just another example of americans being stubborn, a little like the metric system I suppose one could say.

November 28, 2013 at 6:50 am
(36) Ghostronaut says:

Not that it matters much to say so on this string of comments, but I’d like to point out that the English language isn’t technically even from England as Rich stated in his comment:
“English language is from ENGLAND, what we say goes, like all things “American” it’s just stolen from the rest of the world. Goddam pushy yanks.”

Rich, the English language is largely comprised of french words mispronounced. And where it’s not French, it’s Latin and Greek based. It’s also categorically a Germanic language as it originated from Germanic settlers/invaders. So technically, the English language isn’t from England. It’s from regions best described modernly as Germany, France, Scandinavia, Greece and Rome. Talk about things stolen from the rest of the world.

Leave it to an Englishman to put a flag in whatever he likes and claim it as his own at some point.

December 8, 2013 at 2:19 am
(37) Neuromancer says:

Considering how the word Alum is pronounced, I am going to go with, neither country pronounces it correctly.

I will now say Alum-eye-numb. so it rhymes and is therefore more pleasing.

My word has been written.

December 12, 2013 at 7:45 am
(38) copywriter says:

I’m a copywriter based in the UK. I’ve come looking for a definitive answer to aluminum / aluminium. Well really I’ve come looking for definitive evidence that aluminium is the correct term.

I’ve read all your comments, and visited the IUPAC site. Here is a link to the periodic table on that site:

http://www.iupac.org/fileadmin/user_upload/news/IUPAC_Periodic_Table-1May13.pdf

As you can clearly see, it is listed ONLY as Aluminium.

End of story?

December 19, 2013 at 1:01 pm
(39) Steve says:

I like to use USAlian, or Usian (yoosian) as many people don’t know if i’m referring to a Cuban, Argentinian or Peruvian when I say ‘American’ (at least outside the USA).
Inside the USA most people know what I mean when I say ‘American’.

January 8, 2014 at 4:22 am
(40) Nigel says:

Interesting discussion but what annoys me far more is the mispronunciation of the metric system’s kilo-meter. Why does the English speaking world insist in mispronouncing the word as kil-ometer?! I studied Engineering at London’s Queen Mary College, which In1950 was I believe the first English college to adopt the MKS system of units, and the word kil-ometer has never crossed my lips.

January 25, 2014 at 3:59 am
(41) Uhmmmno says:

@Ghostronaut

English is not “categorically” a germanic language. It is a germanic language. Its vocabulary may contain words from the French, Greek and Latin but is not related to the hellenic or italic language families at all.

You are right though that the antecedents of Modern English came from elsewhere though. If the brits want to be nationalistic about a language, they should choose one of the beautiful celtic languages that arrived before the Angles and Saxons by 500+ years.

January 25, 2014 at 4:12 am
(42) Uhmmmno says:

Because “keelo-meters” sounds pretentious when said by the average person; only in academia can you get away with enunciating that well. Just be thankful that they haven’t replaced the i with a schwa. Yet.

February 22, 2014 at 6:24 pm
(43) Steve h says:

Sir Humphrey Davy proposed the name Alumium from alum with the suffix ium to follow the convention of most of the other metallic elements, an exception for example is lanthanum. This was later re-spelled Aluminium basically because it rolls off the tongue better. Websters dictionary was published in 1828 some years after the aluminium spelling was accepted internationally. Aluminum is a purely USA word that does not exist in standard English. The USA should adopt the internationally accepted spelling instead of trying to dictate to the rest of the world.

March 7, 2014 at 6:45 pm
(44) Alfie says:

It’ just a as far as I can tell, both pronunciations are correct. Lets leave it at that. As for you Brits, You haven’t gotten it right since Neville Chamberlain. You Canadians! You might not wish to be classified as an American but the least that you could do is to decide if you are British or French!

March 10, 2014 at 5:59 pm
(45) Running Bear says:

Sadly being a native , of what you call America, we don’t even call the element aluminium/aluminum, which we call in in our language(dialect) borlrix (Ruby Bead in english/american english). What is the point of using semantics, especially those who call themselves American who being the founders of the universe feel they are the world’s owners/masters.

March 14, 2014 at 9:12 am
(46) John Adriaan says:

@Copywriter

I checked that link, and read the whole page, not just the box for element 13. The second note at the bottom clearly states that “Aluminum” is a common alternate spelling. So: not the end of the story.

I was more distressed to see that “sulfur” is the only acceptable spelling – my long-learned “sulphur” is not given as an alternate…

March 27, 2014 at 12:05 am
(47) Zeb says:

Have a look at the other oxide-element pairs:
lanthana-lanthanum
magnesia-magnesium
ceria-cerium
thoria-thorium
molybdena-molybdenum

Basic pattern recognition implies that alumina (named before aluminum was discovered) is an oxide of aluminum, not aluminium (or alumium).

April 2, 2014 at 9:34 am
(48) Rhys says:

I’m welsh so maybe I can act as the voice of reason and mediate all of these ridiculously opinionated, none factual comments. We’re all different, will never agree accept it and move on stop trying to use cultural stereotyping to point score and instead attempt to have an educated discussion based around fact. The biggest let down with any article such as this (which an individual has taken time to research) is when a group of argumentative illiterate trolls spout insults at one another in order to continue on with centuries of needless rivalry, war, dictatorship and independence things which happened centuries before anyone here was born. Here’s to the development of the human race; why not go back to shuffling around in caves and start bashing each other around the head with improvised stone tools. That’s as close to what can be achieved with comments like the ones featured on this page. Maybe more research and use of sources could enhance the discussion?

April 5, 2014 at 7:19 am
(49) Neil says:

Rhys, your comments could be construed as a little confrontational as well.. ;-)

There IS a serious point to be made (with no implied nationalistic overtones) that it’s about time the U.S adopted the same standards and measurement systems as the rest of the world. It’s not just aluminium/aluminum, it’s everything from using completely irrational and inefficient non-metric measurement units such as fluid ounces, inches, feet, pounds etc. to using a different size of paper from everyone else (US Letter size instead of A4). In almost all cases, the international conventions are demonstrably superior or more correct, it’s purely inertia and social conservatism that is holding the U.S. back. It’s quite amazing that US engineers actually still use something as medieval as pounds per square inch to measure pressure or the infamous “pounds-seconds” that caused the loss of the Mars climate orbiter… The reason the A4 system is superior incidentally is that the ratio of 1 to the square root of 2 means that any piece of paper in the ISO 216 system produces two pieces in the same proportions when cut in half.

April 14, 2014 at 9:05 am
(50) Skiedski says:

My father (who, in my opinion, is the smartest man on Earth) told me a similar story to the one (8) Markelson told.

I heard that the wife (or the printing company… not sure which!) of Charles Martin Hall misspelled aluminium on their stationary. So instead of dishing out more money to re-print, they just went with it! I also read supporting evidence that this was a typo since -ium was used in all his original patent applications.

I think it’s a fun and interesting story and will stick to it since no one seems to agree!

I also love to search out these fun facts and stories and was disgruntled by all the cheeky naysaying going on above. Pull the proverbial stick out of yer ass and let people discuss “facts”, rumors, history, whatever you want to call it, with some fun!

April 15, 2014 at 9:29 am
(51) Magnus says:

Or… maybe the Americans wether from the US or Canada should use the internationally spelling aluminium that the rest fo the world does. After all, the North America makes upp around 5% of the worlds population so 95% are probably going with the international standard.
Or what do you say? ; )

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