Monday, February 13, 2012


Alembic \uh-LEM-bik\ , noun;
1. Anything that transforms, purifies, or refines
2. A vessel with a beaked cap or head, formerly used in distilling

This word dates to the late 14th century from Middle French alambic, which came from Arabic al-anbiq ("distilling flask") via Old Spanish. Al-anbiq was a borrowing from Greek ambix ("cup") of unknown, but possibly Semitic, origin.

If this word is ultimately Semitic (and even if it isn't), it has certainly taken an interesting path through history. Semitic languages, including Arabic, are part of the Afro-Asiatic language tree, which is separate from the Indo-European language tree. Within Indo-European, Greek is part of the Hellenic branch, while French and Spanish are Italic and English is Germanic. So, assuming this word ultimately derives from a Proto-Semitic source, it went from the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic tree to the Hellenic branch of the Indo-European tree, back the the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic tree, then on to the Italic branch of Indo-European, and eventually landed in the Germanic branch of Indo-European as an English word. Of course, it made other stops along the way and no doubt survives in various forms in other Afro-Asiatic and Indo-European languages.

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