Q&A: Aluminum or aluminium?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we’re umming about aluminum…

Q: Hi AWC. My American friend pronounces the foil stuff you make conspiracy theory hats out of as “ah-LOO-ma-num” and I pronounce “alla-MIN-yum”. We have a good laugh, but it’s still spelt the same, right?

A: Actually, no. It’s not.

Q: Wait, let me put my tin foil hat on. Seriously? Who could be behind this?

A: Sir Humphry Davy, actually. He was an English chemist who took the silver-white metal oxide dubbed “alumina” by French chemists in the late 1700s and isolated it into something new, with a new name.

Q: Great! Here we go then, the definitive answer…

A: In 1808, he named it…

Q: Yes?

A: … we’ll find out after this short break.

Q: What? Since when did our Q&As have commercial breaks?

A: Someone has to pay all the bills. Anyway, today’s column is brought to you by “aluminum foil” – invented in the USA in 1907 for things like gum wrappers and candy bars and available commercially by the 1950s as kitchen rolls of thin sheets approximately 0.2mm thick.

Q: Oh, well at least I’m learning something. So, why do we call it “tin foil”? Tin is a completely different element, right?

A: Yes it is. And the answer is simple enough. You see, tin was the original foil material, popular in the late 1800s. But when superior “aluminum” came along, it was buh-bye tin – but the name stuck around.

Q: Rolls off the tongue easier…

A: And off the cardboard tube!

Q: Hilarious. So, while we’re having this commercial break, is “tinsel” made of tin?

A: Ahh, tinsel – the asbestos of Christmas decorations. According to Santa himself, tinsel first turned up in the early 17th century, originally made from silver before moving on to other shiny metals including tin, but again favouring aluminum by the early 20th century.

Q: Foiled again.

A: Cute. However, it was actually tinsel made from lead that dominated the 20th century – and it would have got away with it if it wasn’t for the meddling, and um, dying, kids. In these post lead-based days, it’s back in fashion again, and made of far less romantic (but safer) PVC with a metallic coating.

Q: Wow. Actually, I remember Christmas when I was young and–

A: —and we’re back! Okay, so before the break, we were finding out what English chemist Sir Humphry Davy called this new shiny metal in 1808. And it was…

Q: …


Q: Wait, what? That’s neither spelling!

A: Don’t worry, all the world’s chemists hated it too – especially the French, angry that it didn’t acknowledge the “n” of its “alumina” origins. So, in 1812, Davy made overtures to relaunch it as “aluminum”, and the Americans and Canadians all nodded and shouted “hoozah!” or whatever groups of chemists did back then.

Q: But not Britain?

A: No. Another British scientist named Thomas Young thought this new name still sucked.

Q: Come on, it’s not that bad! Certainly no “iSnack 2.0”…

A: Sure, but Young felt it had “a less classical sound” – suggesting instead “aluminIUM” to match other metal elements of the day such as sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium…

Q: …platinum…

A: Okay, smarty pants. There were a few like that, but MOST went with “-ium”. Britain and America traded spellings for a while, but by the 1900s, North American chemists were staunchly spelling it without the “i” despite the rest of the world disagreeing.

Q: This has all the ingredients for quite a volatile chemical reaction…

A: Well we hate to throw cold water on your cesium, but the issue is largely settled now. In the 1990s, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, although favouring the “aluminium” spelling in its tables etc, officially acknowledged the variant American spelling.

Q: So, to wrap all this up (in aluminium foil), it’s the same shiny stuff but USA and Canada spell it “aluminum” and we spell it “aluminium”.

A: Correct.

Q: And furthermore, it’s all a conspiracy between aliens and the Vatican…

A: Take off that tin foil hat RIGHT NOW!

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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