al·​che·​my ˈal-kə-mē How to pronounce alchemy (audio)
: 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
: 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
: an inexplicable or mysterious transmuting
alchemical adjective
or less commonly alchemic
alchemically adverb

Did you know?

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.

Did you know?

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.

Example Sentences

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 Some forgotten memories, as Proust famously demonstrated, can become accessible through what seems like a kind of alchemy. Tahneer Oksman, Washington Post, 17 May 2023 Nonetheless, the works remain vessels for the alchemy of each viewer's projections and imaginations. Tom Teicholz, Forbes, 3 May 2023 On Saturday, the regal alchemy will be conjured anew at King Charles III’s coronation at Westminster Abbey in London. Alan Cowell, New York Times, 2 May 2023 In addition to the concept, Fonda also had the idea to cast Tomlin and Parton, creating a sparkly alchemy that virtually radiates from the screen. Debby Wolfinsohn,, 11 Apr. 2023 The alchemy of Ukrainian success with HIMARS, multiple observers have noted, has three key elements: the existential nature of their fight, their aptitude and familiarity with artillery operations, and an uncommon understanding of how their invader operates. Popular Mechanics, 31 Mar. 2023 It is not dictated by fame but connection to audience, an alchemy of talent and soul. Bolu Babalola, Harper's BAZAAR, 6 Dec. 2022 Although his seven guests offer plenty of exciting moments throughout the album, Pedro Canale (real name) shines bright on his own in four of them, where his spellbinding alchemy is pushed to the forefront. Billboard Staff, Billboard, 11 Nov. 2022 Doja’s set was already a trip, contorting her pop alchemy into heavy-metal magic. Ilana Kaplan, Vulture, 18 Apr. 2022 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'alchemy.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


Middle English alkemye, alkamye, alchymie, borrowed from Anglo-French & Medieval Latin; Anglo-French alkemye (Middle French also alquimie, arquemie), borrowed from Medieval Latin alkimia, alchymia "transmutation of base metals into gold, the philosopher's stone," borrowed from Arabic al-kīmiyāʼ, from al "the" + kīmiyāʼ "art of transmuting base metals," borrowed, perhaps via Syriac kīmiyā, from Late Greek chymeîā, chēmeîā, of uncertain origin

Note: The Greek form chymeîa would appear to be a derivative of an unattested verb *chymeúein "to pour, cast, fuse" (compare Late Greek chýmeusis "alloy"), itself a derivative of chýma (with short y) "fluid, ingot, bar," etymologically "something poured," a derivative of chéō, cheîn "to pour, shed," but probably influenced in form by chȳmós "animal or plant fluid" (as a direct derivative from chýma would be *chymateúein; see chyme, chyle, found entry 5). Though this etymology would appear relatively satisfactory, the existence of a variant chēmeîā, which in vernacular Byzantine pronunciation would not have differed from chymeîā, has led to speculation of another origin. It has been recognized since at least Jean-François champollion (L'Égypte sous les Pharaons, tome premier, Paris, 1814, pp. 109-110), that chēmeîā has a striking resemblance to Chēmíā, a name for Egypt used by Plutarch (in "De Iside et Osiride," Moralia 364c): "Egypt, moreover, which has the blackest of soils, they call by the same name as the black portion of the eye, Chēmíā." This word is clearly adapted from the Coptic name for Egypt, kêmi, a descendant of ancient Egyptian km.t, a name for the Nile valley, taken to be a derivative of km "black." Other sources also point to an association of alchemy and Egypt. Zosimos of Panopolis (active around 300 A.D.), himself a native of late Hellenistic Egypt and an early alchemical writer, connects chēmeîā with Egyptian metal workers, who, he claims, enriched their rulers by secret methods of extracting gold from sand. (Zosimos drew the word chymeîā/chēmeîā from Chýmos, also Chýmēs, Chímēs—either a person or a book—but this is likely a back-formation.) Byzantine chroniclers, as John of Antioch (seventh century), refer to an edict of the Roman emperor Diocletian that ordered the burning of Egyptian books dealing with the chēmeîā of gold and silver, so that the Egyptians could not enrich themselves and thus be emboldened to rise against Roman rule (see M. Berthelot, Les origines de l'alchemie, Paris, 1885, pp. 22, 72; also Suda On Line, Adler number chi 280); evidence for such an edict contemporary with Diocletian does not appear to exist. Whether the Egyptian etymology of chymeîā/chēmeîā should completely displace the Greek, or if both have some validity, is still an undecided issue. — For the distinction in sense after ca. 1700 between alchemy and chemistry, see the note at chemist.

First Known Use

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

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

Dictionary Entries Near alchemy

Cite this Entry

“Alchemy.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 29 May. 2023.

Kids Definition


al·​che·​my ˈal-kə-mē How to pronounce alchemy (audio)
: a medieval chemical science with the goals of changing less valuable metals into gold, discovering a single cure for all diseases, and discovering how to live forever

Middle English alkamie, alquemie, from early French alquemie or Latin alchymia (both same meaning), from Arabic al-kīmiyā' (same meaning), from al "the" and kīmiyā' "alchemy," from Greek chēmeia "alchemy" — related to chemo-, chemistry

Medical Definition


al·​che·​my ˈal-kə-mē How to pronounce alchemy (audio)
plural alchemies
: 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
alchemist noun
alchemistic adjective
or alchemistical

More from Merriam-Webster on alchemy

Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!