Should the name of the chemical element be written as sulphur or sulfur? The simple and immediate answer is that the former is the British spelling and the latter is the American form. But a close look shows that the situation is rather more complicated.
Starting with the COED, we see:
sulphur (US & Chemistry sulfur)
then, slightly contradictorily:
- n. US spelling of sulphur etc.
or perhaps it is just implying that Americans write sulfur even when Brits use the ph.
The origin of the word is of interest. It is not the usual ph case of English taking the Latin spelling, which the Romans themselves used to represent Greek ф. The word is of Arabic origin, as can be seen in its Spanish name azufre, which, as usual for such words, includes the Arabic article (the Catalan is sofre, which, as usual, omits it). The OED etymology is, in full:
[a. AF. sulf(e)re (12th c.), OF. (mod.F.) soufre (from 13th c.) = Pr. solfre solpre, sulpre, It. solfo, zolfo, OSp. çufre, Pg. xofre (also, with Arabic article prefixed, OSp. açufre, Sp. azufre, Pg. enxofre):-L. sulfur(em), sulphur(em), whence also Du. sulfer, solfer.]
The Arabic connection here is not perfectly clear but the Latin is given in both forms, with f and ph.
One might suppose that in a matter such as this the chemists might have something to say about what their materials are called, and indeed they do. On 24 November 2000 the Royal Society of Chemistry issued this press release, which accepts sulfur as the standard form, and which is presumably the base for the COED’s recommendation in 2001:
Sulphur or sulfur?
An internationally agreed nomenclature is essential for science. This ensures that scientists can communicate with each other clearly, and consistent nomenclature is increasingly important as scientific information is searched electronically. For chemistry the standards are agreed by IUPAC [International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry]. In 1990 it was recommended by IUPAC that the spelling of sulfur would use ‘f’ instead of ‘ph’ and at the same time the spellings aluminium and caesium were recommended instead of aluminum and cesium (the spellings in common use in the USA). Interestingly, in 18th and 19th century Britain it was commonplace for sulfur to be spelt with either an ‘f’ or ‘ph’.
The guidance sent out by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority for Key Stage 3 tests merely reflects the recommendations contained in the Association for Science Education - the professional organisation for science teachers in the UK - publication ‘Signs, Symbols & Systematics 2000’. The use of internationally agreed terminology is just one of many ways that the science curriculum is kept up-to-date to ensure that young people in schools can access the latest scientific information.
That makes sense. I see no reason why the RSC should not have the last word on this and am perfectly happy to use sulfur.
The acceptance of aluminium brings this into line with all the other elements that end with ‑ium but I am not sure why caesium with the ae is accepted for international use. There can be no doubt, as any Google search will confirm, that the Greek ae and oe forms are the minority in scientific use. And I can confirm from my own experience that it is quite impossible to persuade a Spanish gynaecologist that there is any point whatsoever in his including the a in the name of his department.