Learn English – the etymology of ‘Chemistry’


Most studies of science end with the suffixes -logy, -nomy and -metry, as defined in the answer to the question Meaning of '-onomy', '-ology' and '-ography', including examples like 'geology', 'astronomy' and 'photometry' (which I specialise in).

However, there are exceptions, in particular, the science of chemistry. There is another discussion about the term, chemist, in the question The word “chemist” and its origins?, and further from OED:

Of English formation: in 17th c. chymistrie, f. chymist (chemist) + -ry, ‘the art or practice of the chemist’; at first probably contemptuous, cf. palmistry, sophistry, casuistry, etc.

This question is about the actual term for the science itself – chemistry – what is its origin? Additionally, does the fact the word ends in -istry and not one of the more standard suffixes have a connection to terms such as palmistry (as in the quote above)?

Best Answer

The term chemistry used to indicate an art rather than a science. That is probably why in the formation of the term the suffix - ry, meaning 'art of ' was chosen:


  • c.1600, "alchemy," from chemist + -ry; also see chemical (adj.). The meaning "natural physical process" is 1640s, and the scientific study not so called until 1788. The figurative sense of "instinctual attraction or affinity" is attested slightly earlier, from the alchemical sense.

-ry, -ery: (Etymology)

  • word-forming element making nouns meaning "place for, art of, condition of, quantity of," from Middle English -erie, from Latin -arius (see -ary).


  • The word chemistry comes from the word alchemy, an earlier set of practices that encompassed elements of chemistry, metallurgy, philosophy, astrology, astronomy, mysticism and medicine; it is commonly thought of as the quest to turn lead or another common starting material into gold.

  • In retrospect, the definition of chemistry has changed over time, as new discoveries and theories add to the functionality of the science. The term "chymistry", in the view of noted scientist Robert Boyle in 1661, meant the subject of the material principles of mixed bodies.In 1663, "chymistry" meant a scientific art, by which one learns to dissolve bodies, and draw from them the different substances on their composition.

  • The 1730 definition of the word "chemistry", as used by Georg Ernst Stahl, meant the art of resolving mixed, compound, or aggregate bodies into their principles; and of composing such bodies from those principles

(from Wikipedia)