Element, O, P? The elements of “element”

Last post, I discussed how the four, newly confirmed elements are named. But what about the very word element? How did it get its name? Its etymology may not be so, er, elementary.

Building blocks and ABCs? It’s elementary. “Element.” Doodle by me.

The development of element

In English, the earliest record of element names the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire, which ancient and medieval philosophers believed made up the whole of the physical universe. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds record of such usages as early as the 1300s.

The OED also finds, I should note, some early evidence of element that might refer to celestial bodies, suggesting that the word may have had multiple meanings even in its cradle.

We now know, of course, that the universe is composed of so much more than earth, air, water, and fire – and in a completely different manner. Though, if you stop to think about it, humans have discovered 118 elements, 24 of which are synthetic. That’s really not a whole lot of stuff making up the universe as we know it. And most of it actually just hydrogen.

Anyways, we might well say the the discovery of those four new elements – ununtrium, ununpentium, ununseptium, and ununoctium – owes a lot to those old theories, if we take the long view. And the four classical elements show their influence not only on the development of modern chemistry but also on Modern English, seen in the expressions in or out of (one’s) elements. See, each of the four elements was considered to be the natural realm for respective living beings. Think: birds in the air, fish in the sea. This usage, as the OED documents, dates back to the end of the 16th century.

Now, the OED first credits the modern chemical usage of element to Cornish scientist Humphry Davy (who also gets credit for the metallic suffix -ium, as we saw last post) in his lectures, Elements of Agricultural Chemistry, compiled in 1813. According to an 1815 edition of the work, Davy states:

By methods of analysis dependent on chemical and electrical instruments discovered in late times, it has been ascertained that all the varieties of material substances may be resolved into a comparatively small number of bodies, which, as they are not capable of being decompounded, are considered in the present state of chemical knowledge as elements. The bodies incapable of decomposition at present known are forty-seven.

I love that Davy’s lectures are called Elements of Agricultural Chemistry. And he even opens his lectures by observing that the “doctrines” of agricultural chemistry “have not yet been collected into any elementary treatises.” These examples aptly show that element and its derivative forms had already long been enjoying many senses outside of material contexts.

The ABCs of element 

OK, so what do we know about the etymological elements of element? The English word passes into English from the French element, which developed from Latin’s elementumLike English’s own element, this word could refer to a lot of things, including the notion of a “first principle.” As the OED describes it, Latin’s elementum is a “word of which the etymology and primary meaning are uncertain…”

This uncertainty has lead to a number of curious hypotheses. While noting its ultimately obscure origin, Eric Partridge wonders if elementum may have developed from *eligmentum, formed on “ēligere, to choose (the fundamental substance or basic principle) from (a welter of physical phenomenon).”

Meanwhile, Earnest Klein, also noting the obscure origin, suggests one proposal, *elepantum, is “most probable.” This *elepantum, so it’s argued, meant “ivory letter,” loaned from the Greek ἐλέϕας – “elephant” or “ivory,” and source of elephant – but altered by some Etruscan influence.

Ivory letters? Surely Klein means letters carved into (or possibly from?) ivory. The ivory component of this argument may be lacking tusks, but the letter part is important.

For Latin’s elementum could also refer to that building block of reading and writing: a “letter,” as in a letter of the alphabet. English features the metaphor, too. We don’t just learn our ABCs in elementary school. We also learn the ABCs of computer programming or basketball, say.

Scholars are also certain that Latin’s elementum is actually a translation of the Greek στοιχεῖον (stokheion), a word with equally many meanings.

For this word, I consulted Liddell and Scott’s Greek dictionary, and they gloss it as “one of row,” referring to, in the singular, “the shadow of the gnomon (of a sundial)” as well as “a letter.” In the plural, the word referred to the classical “elements” (a usage to attributed Plato) as well “rudiments” in the more general sense. At root is στοῖχος (stoikhos), a “row” or “rank,” source of English’s stoichiometry, speaking of chemistry.

But why the form elementum for that Greek  stokheionCarefully sound out the first three syllables of the word. Does it sound like letters lm, and n?  Was elementum a way of referring to the Roman alphabet via its second half, viz. alphabet (from Greek, referring to its first two letters, alpha and beta) or abecedarium (from post-classical Latin, joining a later Roman alphabet’s first three)?

But, then again, why the second half? Seems a bit fanciful, no?

Well, esteemed etymologist Anatoly Liberman thinks there may just be something to this, including the fancy. Through a series of sound changes beyond our element here, Liberman makes the case that elementum is an alteration of alimenta, “food” or “sustenance,” with each letter in the alphabetic sequence “nourishing” the next. (For  alimenta, think English’s alimentary). The resulting elementum additionally punned on lm, and n. And all as a sort of act of fancy on the part of some scholar. As Liberman puts it:

To put it differently, elementum was not derived from an identifiable root with the help of a suffix but coined whole to gloss Greek stoikheon…Some grammarian must have taken alimenta ~ *olimenta and changed it into elementa (the singular elementum postdates the plural).

This means Latin was first using elementa to refer to “letters,” later figuring other “rudiments” or “first principles” with the term  and then back-forming the singular, elementum.

Further efforts have attempted to link elementum to Semitic roots, including the ancient Canaanite alphabet, but these theories are certainly not easy as ABC.

Whether or not element ultimately imitates the recitation of any letters is up for debate, but one thing is for sure: its Latin and Greek references to the ABCs proves element is pretty elementary, in a manner of speaking, after all.

m ∫ r ∫


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