“Alchemy” comes from the Arabic word, “al-khimia” or “al-kimiya.”
The “al-” part of the word in Arabic is the definite article like “the” in English.
The remaining “kimiya” has several possible origins depending on your view of history.
http://www.history-science-technology.com/Articles/articles%2010.htm: History of Science and Technology in Islam
Kimiya: Secrets of the Ancients – but Egyptian, Greek or Chinese?
“Kemet” was the native Egyptian name for Egypt. It was the word for “black” and significantly, the word used to distinguish the fertile Nile lands from the red desert soils. Some think that the Greeks then called the Egyptian (“black”) art “Chêmia,” to mean “the Egyptian art” (“χημεία”).
Others think that the “kimiya” part of the word comes from the Greek word (a Syriac transliteration of the Greek word) “chûma” which stood for “cast together” or “transmutation” or “smelting” (Ferrario, 2007).
Yet another possibility, perhaps more remote, is that al-khemia stems from a Chinese root “kim-iya,” a South Chinese term meaning “gold-making juice”, itself made up of two Chinese words: “Kim” (gold) and “Yeh” (juice) (Mahdihassan, 1988).
Spanish Vocabulary: An Etymological Approach. p. 254. David Brodsky. Published by University of Texas Press, 2008
Word gets around – The Origin of the Word Alchemy
Born from an exotic, mystical root that reached back through Arabia, to the Greeks, and to the ancient Egyptians and perhaps beyond, alchemy was a continual spoil of war – the precious knowledge of amazing metalurgical and pre-chemical technologies that was part magic, part religion, and part science.
Each civilization took what it could of conquered civilization’s alchemical sciences, and bundled them up with their own, until another civilization came along and took it from them (just like someone will probably one day come along and do to us).
The Egyptians are considered to be the foundation of European alchemy, but it was the invading Greek, and then Arabic/Islamic societies that conserved it. Little remains of original Egyptian texts – in fact, the earliest known use of the word “khemeia” was in a decree issued by the Roman Emperor Diocletian (c. 300), to burn all such Egyptian books.
Al-Kimiya: Notes on Arabic Alchemy: Chemical Heritage Magazine
Al-kimiya spread throughout the Islamic Empire, to Spain and to the old Islamic capital city Toledo, in central Spain, during the years of La Convivencia (“the Coexistence”) a period of Islamic control but broad-spread religious tolerance in Spanish history from about 711 to 1492, slowly loosing ground over centuries to Christian forces making their way down from the north.
But even before Christian forces overran the Iberian peninsula, Europeans sought out Arabic knowledge there (as early as 1000 with Pope Silvester II (Gerbert d’Aurillac)).
In Spain, alchemy had the opportunity to mix with various influences, including the Kaballism of the Jewish diaspora. During the following period of Reconquista (“Reconquest”), Christian forces regained Spain, moving down from the north over a period of 800 years, reaching, and passing Toledo by 1150.
From Spain, from the early 1100s, and throughout the remainder of the 12th century, the corpus of Islamic alchemical works was translated into Latin, and alchemy worked its way north into Southern France and throughout Europe, so that by the middle of the 13th century, a home-grown alchemy had taken hold in Europe (Ferrario, 2007).
It was to Spain that Nicolas Flamel traveled from Paris around 1378 to find a Kaballist scholar who would interpret the long-lost Book of Abraham the Jew of which he carried copied sheets.
In 1453 the Greek Byzantine empire fell with the loss of Constantinople, and there was a exodus of Greeks through Europe, carrying Greek books and culture.
Wikipedia Historical Jewish Population Comparisons April 27 2009
In 1492 Spain expelled the Jews (and the Muslims), and many of them dispersed through Europe, carrying “al-kimiya” with them. In France, the practice was called “alquemie” and “alchimie” (Alchemy). Moving into English, the word became “alchemy.”
It was Georgius Agricola (Georg Bauer), physician, mineralogist, alchemist, and student of Greek, who dropped the Arabic al prefix of “alchemy” to derive “chemistry” in the 16th century. This was not taken to imply a split between two pursuits, but was possibly an attempt to eliminate the prefix as unnecessary – a form of alchemical purification. Over the following centuries, “alchemy” and “chemistry” began to take on different meanings.
Etymology of Alchemy
- The American Journal of Chinese Medicine. 1988;16(1-2):83-6. “Alchemy, Chinese versus Greek, an etymological approach: a rejoinder.” Mahdihassan S. (Retr. May 12, 2009).
- Al-Kimiya: Notes on Arabic Alchemy. Gabriele Ferrario. Chemical Heritage Magazine, Fall 2007, Vol. 25, No. 3. (Retr. May 12, 2009).
- Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Entry on Alchemy. (Retr. April 29, 2009).