The Great Aluminum Controversy: Why Do Americans Say it Differently?

Why do Americans spell aluminium as aluminum? Is aluminum incorrect? Who’s right, the British or Americans? Should it be called aluminium or aluminum? And, is it ok to use the suffix -um instead of -ium in the first place?

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The spelling and pronunciation of aluminum causes a lot of debates. I know that British folks love to tell we Americans how we get words wrong and how dumb we are. I understand! But we aren’t so dumb as you think we are! We are just stubborn.

The person who discovers an element gets to name it. The discoverer of the element aluminium / aluminum was Sir Humphrey Davy. He, at first was undecided on which to call it. He first named it aluminium. Then, a bit later, he decided to call it aluminum. Then, he later changed it back to aluminium.

Hey, he gets to name it. He finally decided on aluminium so that’s the name, right? Well, sure…

But, once he first changed the name to aluminum a number of trade magazines adopted this name. So, perhaps due to editorial decisions and perhaps the choices of aluminum trading companies, who for whatever reason, like aluminum better than aluminium, the name stuck in America. The drive to stick with aluminium in Britain and Europe is another story but in the end, the scientific world and other countries besides America used aluminium.

So that’s why we call it aluminum in America. But, some people say that we Americans are so dumb we don’t even realize that the suffix -um is incorrect! Well, tell that to Sir Humphrey Davy. And also, tell it to the Romans. You know, those Latin-speaking people who came up with all these -ums and -iums.

The fact is there are other elements that do use the suffix -um instead of -ium: molybdenum, tantalum, platinum, and lanthanum. And the Romans had -um names for some of our more familiar metals. Plumbum for lead, stannum for tin, ferrum for iron, etc. This is where we get the abbreviations for them, like Sn for stannum or tin and Pb for plumbum, or lead. Seems the Romans themselves had no problem with -um.

Unless you look very deeply, you will find little logical consistency in the way the elements are named. What we can say is that -ium has been pretty much decided on as the de facto suffix for elements named in the 19th century. This would mean that aluminium was more consistent with that naming pattern. But this -ium decision also breaks earlier naming patterns, such as naming noble gases with an -on. Helium is a noble gas but it’s not called helon.

Then we have oxygen and nitrogen. It gets really confusing. But let’s just agree that aluminium and aluminum both have a right to exist. And it’s easier to say aluminum foil than aluminium foil. Maybe that’s why some British folks still carry on with tin foil even though it’s no longer made of tin.

No, no. I’ll admit my mom and grandmother used to call it tin foil too. And some folks in America still do. And we still say tin foil hat even though you would make one out of aluminum. The humble truth is that the word aluminium just sounds very strange to our ears. You can’t convince us aluminium sounds right any more than we can convince you that aluminum sounds right. Let’s all just agree that aluminum foil is much better than tin foil. And it is. Way better.

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