The chemical composition of many things is much more complex than we suspect, and the same goes with words.

We typically think of words as pure, simple things made up of the sound (specific individual sounds put in sequence and said with a particular rhythmic pattern) and the sense (what the word denotes and how it’s used in a sentence). Some people are also aware that the sense includes not just denotation but connotation (just as a violin and a fiddle are the same instrument but occupy different status positions). But, oh, it’s all so much more complex than that.

The sounds, for instance, are not at all distinct; they flow together and we divide them into bits in our heads. And what we think of as the same sound in two different places will often be two perceptibly different sounds (for instance, the /æ/ in back is thought of as the same sound as in bag but most of us say the /æ/ in bag with the tongue a bit higher and more forward).

The sense is even more complex. It’s not just that a word has a certain tone, and is typically used in certain places with certain other words; it can also embody a certain ideology, which we usually won’t stop to question or even think about. It’s like a secret ingredient – an undisclosed chemical.

What do you think of when you hear the word chemical? What words do you associate with it? Does it go with toxic, artificial, industrial? Does it go against natural, pure, healthy? If I search in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, I find that frequent phrases using it include chemical weapons, toxic chemicals, hazardous chemicalsharmful chemicals, dangerous chemicals, exposure to chemicals, chemical or biological weapons

We have an ideology of “pure” versus “impure,” which also ties into “natural” versus “unnatural” and “healthy” versus “unhealthy.” Things we call “chemicals” are in general thought of as bad, artificial, unhealthy, unnatural, impure… But how do you get a chemical, and what is its composition? It’s a particular molecule that you can name, right? Ammonium chloride, para-aminobenzoic acid, ethyl mercaptan, sodium monofluorophosphate… How do you get those? By, uh, some process that, uh, extracts them or synthesizes them from other chemicals and purifies them by…


Well, yes, the things we think of as chemicals are generally individual molecules, and that means that they have had other things that are not them taken away. They are purified.

But still, chemicals aren’t pure and natural, right? Because they’re not purely natural. They’re taken away from nature.

So something gets to be purely natural by not being purified. Hmm, OK.

But what is natural? How about water? A bit of nice H2O? Well, of course, the water we drink has lots more in it than dihydrogen oxide, just as the air we breathe always has many different things in it (and you wouldn’t want it to be pure oxygen! in fact, it’s mostly nitrogen). Some of the things we get in our air and water aren’t so great for us, true, and distilled water is purer, um… but…

OK, what is not a chemical? Your all-natural fruit juice doesn’t have chemicals, right? Your body doesn’t have chemicals in it if you don’t put chemicals in it, right?

Have you heard of the famously hard pre-med university course often called “orgo”? It’s a course in organic chemistry. Which means, among other things, the chemical reactions going on in our bodies every moment of our lives, and in all other living things too. The things that happen in cells are fantastically complex and involve the interactions of numerous molecules with very long names. Look up “Krebs cycle” and brace yourself.

And it’s all chemicals. Your body isn’t just full of chemicals; if you took out all the chemicals, there wouldn’t be any body left. Bones and teeth? Calcium is a chemical element, and the various compounds it’s in are chemical compounds. Water? A chemical. Cells? Lots and lots of molecules, every one of which is a chemical compound.

If you want to limit the meaning of chemical to things that have been artificially extracted from organic things, then the sodium chloride in your body isn’t a chemical but the iodized salt you put on your food is, and the wine you drink is, and the sausages you eat would have to be, and… And if you say that wine isn’t a chemical, do you say that rubbing alcohol is? If not, why not? And if so, what’s the line? Is vodka a chemical? Is cheap vodka a chemical but expensive vodka not? Is acetic acid a chemical when used in processing film but not when it’s in vinegar? Is hydrochloric acid a chemical except for when it’s in your stomach?

There’s no hard line. Because there’s no line at all. It’s just how you want to think of it – and how you want other people to think of it. In other words, ideology. And marketing, too: if someone is talking about “chemicals,” ask yourself what they’re trying to sell you.

No matter how much or how little processed, everything is chemicals. If you eat a hot pepper, for instance, you’re eating very complex chemicals in very complex arrangements. And if someone takes hot peppers and processes them to get capsaicin, and purifies it as much as possible, it’s a chemical. If they mix it with water or alcohol or both, that’s all chemicals too. And every substance out there, however terrifyingly “unnatural,” started out at some point as something (or several things) from nature, because of course it did, where did you think it all came from, magic?

It’s true that some chemicals are more toxic than others, but that’s not a question of how “natural” they are or not; purified botulin toxin and purified cobra venom are more toxic than their less purified “natural” versions (which, however, are plenty toxic enough, thank you), but “natural” water can be much more toxic than its more purified versions, and many alcoholic beverages are distilled (purified) from grain or fruit mashes that would be much more toxic.

Speaking of processing, by what process has this word chemical arrived as an ingredient in English? Where does it come from? You get a clue from the ch, which often shows up in Greek words that have passed through Latin. And that’s true, but it’s not the whole story. Our various chem- words (chemistry, chemical, etc.) are derived from alchem- words (notably alchemy); the al- was removed in a sort of linguistic biochemistry. But that al- tells you something about where it’s from: when you see a word starting with al-, such as algebra and alcohol and albatross, there’s a pretty good chance it came from Arabic, where al means ‘the’ but has been borrowed over with the root. Such is the case here too.

So it’s really an Arabic word! Well, yes, it comes from اَلْكِيمِيَاء‎ (al-kīmiyāʾ). But Arabic got it from Ancient Greek, χημεία (khēmeía). And that in turn came from from χύμα (khúma, ‘fluid’), which traced to χέω (khéō, ‘I pour’). Which, farther back, came from a Proto-Indo-European word provisionally reconstructed as *ǵʰew-, ‘pour’. And we’re not sure where that came from. No point in purifying it further… or, wait, doesn’t the refinement move forward in time? Or…

Well, no, it’s not more or less pure, it’s just change. The sense has shifted too; alchemy had a lot to do with trying to turn base metals into gold, but it also had to do with pharmaceuticals – distilling natural compounds into more effective versions, like getting acetylsalicylic acid (Aspirin) from tree bark, or morphine from poppies, or, for that matter, capsaicin from hot peppers.

So if someone tells you something isn’t a chemical, or doesn’t have chemicals in it, stop to think about what they’re trying to feed you. Because the secret ingredient is ideology.

2 responses to “chemical

  1. Armand D'Angour

    χύμα from χέω is fine, but classical Greek didn’t have a form χημεία, which would indicate a different root. So where is that form first found? It’s presumably a later spelling, based on the sound of both υ and η changing to ‘ee’ in the early centuries AD.

    • Yes, I didn’t want to go into a digression on that (most readers glaze over when I get too far into the Greek), but there is a historical form χυμεία, and there has been much discussion about the details. Here’s the whole discussion from the Oxford English Dictionary:
      Hellenistic Greek χημία , χημεία occurs c300 in a decree of the Roman Emperor Diocletian against ‘the old writings of the Egyptians, which treat of the χημία (transmutation) of gold and silver’. Hence, many scholars have postulated a supposed original sense ‘Egyptian art’ for this word, and identified it with Hellenistic Greek Χημία (Plutarch), a name for Egypt ( < Coptic Kēme < ancient Egyptian Kmt Egypt, lit. ‘the black land’ < km black, the Nile Valley being so named on account of the darker colour of its earth, in contrast to the desert sand). If so, it was apparently subsequently associated with the homophonic Hellenistic Greek χυμεία act of pouring, infusion ( < ancient Greek χυ- , perfect stem of χεῖν to pour; compare ancient Greek χυμός juice, sap: see chyme n.), which was taken to explain its meaning (since pouring was a frequent action in alchemical experiments). The Greek spelling with medial -υ- underlies post-classical Latin alchymia and hence the French and English spellings with medial y ; compare also the forms with medial y at chemic n. and adj., chemy n., chemistry n., and other words of the same family. However, it has also been argued ( C. A. F. Mahn Etymol. Untersuchungen auf dem Gebiete der roman. Sprachen (1858) lxix. 81–5) that Hellenistic Greek χυμεία was probably the original form (rather than either χημεία or χημία ), being first applied to pharmaceutical chemistry, which was chiefly concerned with juices or infusions of plants; that the pursuits of the Alexandrian alchemists were a subsequent development of chemical study, and that the notoriety of these may have caused the name of the art to be popularly associated with the ancient name of Egypt, and spelt χημεία , χημία . Recent scholarship appears to favour the Coptic and Egyptian etymology of the Greek word; see e.g. D. Bain ‘Μελανῖτις γῆ in the Cyranides and Related Texts’, in T. E. Klutz (ed.) Magic in the Biblical World (2003) 191–218, especially 204–8. Some scholars have even suggested that the Arabic word may have been directly borrowed < Coptic.

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