If you have an American and a Brit pronounce the metal they make soda cans from, you’ll hear the difference. Is it aluminum or aluminium?
You need some foil to wrap food before refrigerating it. How many syllables are in the name of the metal it’s made from do you pronounce? Do you say aluminum or aluminium?
The first time I heard a British person pronounce it, I was confused. They were talking about the same thing Americans pronounce with four syllables: “ah-LUM-ih-num.” But they were adding a fifth syllable to come up with “ah-lu-MIN-ee-um.”
At first, I didn’t give it a great deal of thought. But then one day it hit me. Wait a second, I thought. You can’t get that extra syllable from aluminum. The way the British pronounce it, that next to the last syllable, the long E sound, can’t be justified the way the word is spelled.
And therein lies the tale.
There are, in fact, two words. But if you go all the way back to the start of the discovery of the metal, you’ll find three.
It goes back to 1808, when scientist Sir Humphry Davy identified the metal, which has an atomic number of 13 on the periodic table. (Remember your high school science class?) It was Davy who named the elements sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and barium. Following the same naming pattern, he initially called the metal symbolized as Al on the periodic table alumium. Note the missing N.
By 1812, when Davy published Chemical Philosophy, he apparently had changed his mind to add that N, and the name appeared as the familiar aluminum.
You might think that would end the story. But it didn’t.
Some of Davy’s colleagues didn’t like either version. They felt adding an I — and with it, a fifth syllable — made the name sound more like Latin.
Dictionary guru Noah Webster reportedly preferred aluminum. His 1828 dictionary contains that variation. In 1925 the American Chemical Society changed aluminium to aluminum. From there, Americans have used the four-syllable version while most of the rest of the world uses the five-syllable version.
Aluminium may sound more “classical” from a chemistry standpoint. But pronouncing it that way in the United States will probably earn you a few strange looks. Likewise, you may receive the same looks if you pronounce it as aluminum outside of the United States.
Either is correct, but one is more correct depending on where you and your audience happens to be.