Mar 2, 2009
Algebra, alchemy, alcohol, aldebaran, alkali, Alhambra, algorithm, Algarve, and, of course, albatross.
One thing in common…they’re all “al” words, and what is “al” you ask? It’s simply the Arabic definite article, it’s the “the”, in other words. Which means that all those words have “the” in their etymology.
So, when Sir Isaac Newton was referred to as an Alchemist, it didn’t necessarily mean he was searching for the philosopher’s stone or weaving the philosopher’s wool to convert base metal into gold or create an elixir of youth, he was merely studying “the” chemistry. There was no real distinction at the time, although he did partake of some odd practices nevertheless…allegedly.
The BBC recently broadcast an excellent series on Science and Islam showing how those “al” words underpin much of modern science. It was narrated by physicist Jim Al Khalili of the University of Surrey, given his name, his enthusiasms, and his science, how could it not be?
In case you are wondering, Al Khalil loosely means The Friend of God, the “i” at the end makes it possessive, so more accurately, it is “My Friend of God”.