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My text for today is taken once again from the British newspaper the Independent on Sunday. Last weekend, in its Real Life section (a misnomer) a survey of sun creams recommended one product in particular if readers wanted a “completely non-chemical sunscreen”. Now there’s a comment to stop a chemist in his tracks — what’s in it, the pure vacuum of space? The writer meant, of course, that the cream had no man-made substances in it, nothing nastily synthetic; for her, a chemical is something artificial, and so at least potentially dangerous or unpleasant.

It’s illuminating that this word has taken on such a pejorative meaning. But it’s not especially surprising. People have heard such horror stories about the effects of man-made substances — such as this week’s report of dioxins in breast milk, or about the health risks of organophosphate insecticides, or of chlorofluorcarbons that destroy the ozone layer, or any one of a dozen horror stories of recent years, not to mention older terms like chemical warfare and chemical weapon — that it was easy to shift in casual speech from talking about harmful chemicals to just calling them all chemicals, with the negative sense built in.

The adjective has been around for 400 years, but the noun is comparatively new. The Oxford English Dictionary, whose entry was written earlier this century, hardly even admits the existence of the noun, and then only in the plural. It seems it was originally just scientists’ jargon shorthand for something produced by chemists, or as the result of some chemical operation. So the writer was right to a degree: the word chemical does imply a substance created by human ingenuity. Where she went off the rails was to assume that all such substances are noxious and best avoided.

The word chemical, by the way, is a linguistic mongrel. We got it through French from the Arabic alchemie, where the al is the Arabic definite article. The Arabs derived it from the Greek khemia, which was their word for what we know as alchemy, which of course is the Arabic word taken over entire, with the article intact. The Greek original is a form of their name for Egypt, because they believed the Egyptians were skilled in the transmutation of base metals into silver and gold, one of the quests of alchemy. In French the article was stripped off the Arabic to make chimiste and chimique. We borrowed these terms in the sixteenth century in much the same sense as the existing alchemy. It was only a century or more later that our modern meaning emerged.

And now it seems dictionaries must consider adding a derogatory sense, which almost places it alongside the disparaging meaning attached to its precursor alchemy. It’s an association that it would have been nice to do without.

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Page created 17 Jul 1999; Last updated 20 Jul 1999