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The Arabic for "sulphur"/"sulfur" is "kabreet" (also the word for matches). There is, however, an Arabic verb "Saffaran", meaning “to make yellow” which is presumably at the origin of "sulphur"/"sulfur" (as it is of “saffron”). The “l” looks like an intrusion. Etymologically, there seems no reason for the scientists not to favour the spelling with “f”, particularly given the analogy with “saffron”.

Peter Harvey

It appears that the languages that took the word from Arabic (Spanish, Portuguese and Catalan, not surprisingly) have no intrusive l, whereas the ones that took it from Latin do. I am assuming that the u in French soufre is a vestigial l.

John Cowan

There is a similar issue with the names of nickel compounds (fortunately not nearly so common as sulfur ones). Nickel is a word of Germanic origin adopted into modern Latin as niccolum. Accordingly, the IUPAC term for nickel-oxygen compounds is niccolate, analogous to sulfate, phosphate, etc. But American chemists persist in writing nickelate.

There's an article on the pitfalls of translating chemical names which explains why the Spanish for "3-methyl-5-phenylpyridine" is "3-fenil-5-metilpiridina". The numbers refer to the points where phenyl and methyl groups are attached to a ring of six carbon atoms. Since there is no natural starting point in a ring, the carbon atoms are numbered in alphabetical order of their attachments — an order which differs between English and Spanish due to this selfsame f/ph distinction!

Peter Harvey

Thank you John. I do translate chemical and medical texts sometimes and it is true that the names are sometimes in a different order in Spanish and English for reasons that I didn't a first understmnd. There are other spelling differences because Spanish converts everything to Spanish orthographical rules while English respects the Greek from of the original. Timo is a trick or scam but it turns out also to be the thymus.


I actually use the PH form of the word. It was what I was taught since year 8 (British English School System). If I were to travel to a scientific conference, and wrote down sulphur with the PH form. Would I be considered a laughing stock to the scientific community? Or would it be acceptable no matter what scientific authority has deemed the correct spelling of the word to be?

Thanks for making an interesting article.


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