al·​che·​my | \ ˈal-kə-mē How to pronounce alchemy (audio) \

Definition of alchemy

1 : a medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy aiming to achieve the transmutation of the base metals into gold, the discovery of a universal cure for disease, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life
2 : a power or process that changes or transforms something in a mysterious or impressive way … the practitioners of financial alchemy that transformed the world of money in the 1980's …— Gordon Williams
3 : an inexplicable or mysterious transmuting

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Other Words from alchemy

alchemical \ al-​ˈke-​mi-​kəl How to pronounce alchemy (audio) \ or less commonly alchemic \ al-​ˈke-​mik How to pronounce alchemy (audio) \ adjective
alchemically \ al-​ˈke-​mi-​k(ə-​)lē How to pronounce alchemy (audio) \ adverb

Alchemist: Someone Who Transforms Things for the Better

Today we recognize alchemy as a pseudoscience, and give chemistry its rightful place as a serious scientific field, but the two terms initially overlapped in meaning before separating by the 17th century, just as astrology and astronomy did during the same period.

Alchemy and alchemist are in fact older words than chemistry and chemist in English. Alchemists believed that lead could be “perfected” into gold, that diseases could be cured, and that life could be prolonged through transmutation, or a change of some essential element into a superior form. Their secretive experiments, usually involving heat and the mixing of liquids, led to the development of pharmacology and the rise of modern chemistry.

The long route to English for alchemist began with the Greek word chēmeia, which probably came from the word chyma (“fluid”), derived from the verb chein, meaning “to pour.” It then passed to Arabic, which added its definite article al- (“the”) to the Greek root. The word then passed from Latin to French before coming to English. Some other words derived from Arabic also retain the al- in English, such as algebra, algorithm, and alcohol; in fact, the transformative liquid that was constantly being sought through experimentation by alchemists is another word with the Arabic al- prefix: elixir.

This power to transform things for the better, real or imagined, led to figurative meanings for alchemy and alchemist.

The History of Alchemy

The medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy that focused on the attempt to change less valuable metals into gold, to find a universal cure for disease, and to discover a means of prolonging life indefinitely is called alchemy. It was practiced in much of the ancient world, from China and India to Greece. Alchemy migrated to Egypt and was later revived in 12th-century Europe through translations of Arabic texts into Latin. Medieval European alchemists made some useful discoveries, including mineral acids and alcohol. The revival led to the development of pharmacology and to the rise of modern chemistry. The gold-making processes of alchemists were finally discredited, but not until the 19th century.

Examples of alchemy in a Sentence

She practiced her alchemy in the kitchen, turning a pile of vegetables into a delicious salad. The company hoped for some sort of economic alchemy that would improve business.
Recent Examples on the Web Will Stewart work the same kind of alchemy in his new show? oregonlive, "Late-night TV: An old format, but political jokes and new faces reflect how late-night keeps evolving," 28 Apr. 2021 The fatal alchemy of mud, water and sheer force struck in eastern Indonesia at an hour past midnight on Sunday, killing at least 41 people, disaster-relief officials said. New York Times, "Floods and Mudslides in Eastern Indonesia Leave at Least 41 Dead," 4 Apr. 2021 Group enclosure is an essential part of the alchemy. Los Angeles Times, "Theater gets its weird back. How REDCAT and CAP UCLA shows celebrate the offbeat," 22 Apr. 2021 Studying alchemy, there’s a physical chemistry and spiritual side. Nadja Sayej, Forbes, "Jac Lahav On Alchemy, Ancient Ruins And Abstraction," 21 Apr. 2021 To name her experience, to refuse the definitions imposed by others, was Lorde’s primary objective and the touchstone of her creative alchemy. Emily Bernard, The New Republic, "Audre Lorde Broke the Silence," 25 Mar. 2021 At his best, Hemingway achieved the alchemy of crafting sentences that were minimalist and unsentimental yet deeply expressive. Kyle Smith, National Review, "The Many Paradoxes of Ernest Hemingway," 10 Apr. 2021 Experts probing the lasting impacts of this era have found shifting structures in our social interaction, empathy and self-perception: COVID-19 has altered the alchemy of our human element. Sasha Pezenik, ABC News, "How a year of wearing masks and talking on Zoom has changed us," 17 Mar. 2021 Chalk it up to the alchemy that happens when members of royalty -- which includes Queen Oprah -- come together. Lisa Respers France, CNN, "Grammy's history makers still golden," 11 Mar. 2021

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'alchemy.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of alchemy

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for alchemy

Middle English alkamie, alquemie, from Middle French or Medieval Latin; Middle French alkimie, from Medieval Latin alchymia, from Arabic al-kīmiyā', from al the + kīmiyā' alchemy, from Late Greek chēmeia

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Time Traveler for alchemy

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The first known use of alchemy was in the 15th century

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Last Updated

7 May 2021

Cite this Entry

“Alchemy.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 16 May. 2021.

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More Definitions for alchemy


al·​che·​my | \ ˈal-kə-mē How to pronounce alchemy (audio) \

Kids Definition of alchemy

: a science that was used in the Middle Ages with the goal of changing ordinary metals into gold


al·​che·​my | \ ˈal-kə-mē How to pronounce alchemy (audio) \
plural alchemies

Medical Definition of alchemy

: the medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy whose aims were the transmutation of the base metals into gold, the discovery of a universal cure for diseases, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life

Other Words from alchemy

alchemist \ -​məst How to pronounce alchemy (audio) \ noun
alchemistic \ ˌal-​kə-​ˈmis-​tik How to pronounce alchemy (audio) \ or alchemistical \ -​ti-​kəl How to pronounce alchemy (audio) \ adjective

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Nglish: Translation of alchemy for Spanish Speakers Encyclopedia article about alchemy

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