I might want to go to the linguists' neck of the woods with this, but let me post it here first for the benefit of the intrepid souls who can appreciate a good challenge.

There are many words whose origin is traced through Middle English and/or French to Latin or Greek, and it just stops there.

Case in point: the word "etymology" itself:

1350-1400; Middle English < Latin etymologia < Greek etymología, equivalent to etymológ (os) studying the true meanings and values of words ( étymo (s) true (see etymon ) + lógos word, reason) + -ia -y3

So it really means "true reason" (for being, I suppose).

I'm not saying that we should strive to trace everything back to Sanskrit. However, before Greece, there was ancient Egypt.

The Greeks and Egyptians knew each other well from very early on. ("O Solon, Solon, you Hellenes are but children!" exclaims an Egyptian in one of Plato's dialogues). It would have only been natural for the inquisitive Greeks to borrow a few dozen words from their more advanced neighbors.

In their heyday, the Greeks documented everything they could, and the Romans documented and indexed everything they got their hands on, and then the medieval monks did a tremendous job preserving a huge portion of it all until finally Johannes Gutenberg invented his proverbial printing press, which quickly resulted in the creation of backup copies of everything pertaining to antiquity.

And yet nowhere in the dictionary do you see a word whose etymology is described as "from Middle English - from Latin - from Greek - from Egyptian."

Now why is that?

  • I'll guess it's because there aren't any such words.
    – Greg Lee
    Nov 25, 2015 at 7:52
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    I suspect the down vote is because your premise is flawed. Where the etymology 'stops' depends on the source you are using. The OED (in the entry for etymology) goes back to Byzantine Greek, while the Online Etymology Dictionary says "which perhaps is cognate with Sanskrit satyah", so their etymology does not stop at Greek. Nov 25, 2015 at 7:59
  • 1
    @Ricky What makes you think that? What could possibly make you think that either Egyptian or Greek were any more 'advanced' than the other?!? Nov 25, 2015 at 8:14
  • 1
    You're assuming that the Egyptians used writing in the same way as the Greeks or that what we found on temple walls in Egypt was actually spoken by the common person...just to address the writing angle of this. Nov 25, 2015 at 14:46
  • 1
    Related: What is the oldest common English word?
    – ermanen
    Nov 25, 2015 at 18:21

1 Answer 1


You just haven't been looking hard enough.

The word chemistry is derived from alchemy which comes from

mid-14c., from Old French alchimie (14c.), alquemie (13c.), from Medieval Latin alkimia, from Arabic al-kimiya, from Greek khemeioa (found c.300 C.E. in a decree of Diocletian against "the old writings of the Egyptians"), all meaning "alchemy." Perhaps from an old name for Egypt (Khemia, literally "land of black earth," found in Plutarch), or from Greek khymatos "that which is poured out," from khein "to pour," related to khymos "juice, sap" [Klein, citing W. Muss-Arnolt, calls this folk etymology]. The word seems to have elements of both origins. (Online Etymology Dictionary)

The full OED etymology discussion for alchemy is

< (i) Anglo-Norman alkemye, Anglo-Norman and Middle French alkemie, Middle French alchemie, alchymie, alquemie, alquimie, alcamie, alchumie, arquemie, etc., also (in sense A. 2) Anglo-Norman alkenamye, alkenomye (French alchimie , †alchemie , †alchymie , †arquemie ) branch of medieval science whose goal was the transmutation of baser metals into gold (1275 in Old French as alkimie ), metal alloy imitating gold, alloy of gold or silver with a baser metal (1387), intrigue (late 14th cent.), complex and more or less mysterious activity (a1460), trickery, deceit (1547),

and its etymon (ii) post-classical Latin alchimia, alchymia, alkimia, denoting the science (frequently from 12th cent. in British sources; also in continental sources), and denoting an alloy resembling gold in colour (1287 in a British source) < Arabic al-kīmiyā' < al the + kīmiyā' branch of medieval science whose goal was the transmutation of baser metals into gold (the use in sense A. 2 is not paralleled in Arabic), apparently (perhaps via Syriac kīmiyā ) < Hellenistic Greek χημία , χημεία , χυμεία (c300), further origin uncertain and disputed (see below).

Compare Catalan alquímia (13th cent.), Spanish alquimia (c1250), Portuguese alquimia (1555; 1532 as †alchimia ), Italian alchimia (a1321; beginning of the 14th cent. as †alcimmia , a1257 as †alchima ); also Middle Dutch alkemie (late 15th cent.; Dutch alchemie ), Middle Low German alchemy , Middle High German alchimei (German Alchimie , †Alchemie ).

Compare later chemistry n., and see the note at chemistry n. 1 on the eventual semantic distinction between that word and alchemy . Compare also later chemy n.

Further etymology.

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.

Although most modern authoritative etymological dictionaries of European languages agree on the apparent Greek origin of the Arabic word, it has repeatedly been suggested (especially in various works by J. Needham) that it was borrowed instead < Middle Chinese *kim (Chinese jīn metal, gold).

Here's another, the etymology for ebony:

dark, hard wood favored for carving, musical instruments, etc., 1590s, perhaps an extended form of Middle English ebon, or from hebenyf (late 14c.), perhaps a Middle English misreading of Latin hebeninus "of ebony," from Greek ebeninos, from ebenos "ebony," probably from Egyptian hbnj or another Semitic source. Figurative use to suggest intense blackness is from 1620s. As an adjective, "of ebony, made of ebony," from 1590s; in reference to skin color of Africans, by 1813. French ébène, Old High German ebenus (German Ebenholz) are from Latin ebenus. (Online Etymology Dictionary)

Now there just aren't very many words of Ancient Egyptian origin in current English use. These are the only two in the Wikipedia list of English words of African origin (excluding the names Egyptian Gods.) With no direct cultural contact between Ancient Egypt and either the Anglo-Saxons or the Normans, it really shouldn't be surprising that we've borrowed so little from them.

Languages rarely replace their own words with borrowed words, instead words are borrowed for new things. It could be new technology, new plants/animals, new philosophical concepts. And proper names are frequently copied too. You commented above that you think that the Greeks should've borrowed thousands of words from the Egyptians, but why would they need to? The two cultures lived near each other, sharing most of their agriculture and wild plants/animals. Technical development was slow, and the Egyptian civilisation was winding down as the Greek civilisation was becoming prominent, so that there wouldn't have been many Egyptian innovations for the Greeks to borrow words for.

Lastly, if you look up the etymology of chemistry in the OED you won't get that massive discussion, you'll only get one line. Languages are filled with networks of related words, and it would be a waste of space to store the full etymology of every word, not to mention a nightmare to maintain. So a lot of the time, a dictionary's etymology section will only show the most recent stages of a word's history, and if you want to know more you can look up the related words.

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