alchemy

noun
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

Keep scrolling for more

Other Words from alchemy

alchemical \ al-​ˈke-​mi-​kəl How to pronounce alchemical (audio) \ or less commonly alchemic \ al-​ˈke-​mik How to pronounce alchemic (audio) \ adjective
alchemically \ al-​ˈke-​mi-​k(ə-​)lē How to pronounce alchemically (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 The task of bringing their stories to light is a delicate one, and there is no precise alchemy to it. Annette Gordon-reed, The New York Review of Books, "Rebellious History," 6 Oct. 2020 Add invisibility, then, to the feats of optical alchemy that may be made possible by tracking control. Quanta Magazine, "Alchemy Arrives in a Burst of Light," 30 Sep. 2020 Coolness is an alchemy of the self, lots of moving parts in an equation where the answer is you at your least uncertain. Raven Smith, Vogue, "Chloë Sevigny and the Elusive Art of Being a Cool Mom," 30 Sep. 2020 That equation is a key element of the alchemy of Mr. Trump’s finances: using the proceeds of his celebrity to purchase and prop up risky businesses, then wielding their losses to avoid taxes. Russ Buettner, Susanne Craig And Mike Mcintire, New York Times, "Long-Concealed Records Show Trump’s Chronic Losses and Years of Tax Avoidance," 27 Sep. 2020 That equation is a key element of the alchemy of Trump's finances: using the proceeds of his celebrity to purchase and prop up risky businesses, then wielding their losses to avoid taxes. Russ Buettner, Star Tribune, "Trump's taxes show chronic losses and years of income tax avoidance," 27 Sep. 2020 Embracing the alchemy that shifts tragedy to meaning can lift us out of misery. Donna Britt, Washington Post, "After she was shot by police, her Nana’s admonition stays strong: Don’t let hate turn you away from God," 17 Sep. 2020 In the alchemy of her affection, Jack’s despair is transmuted into comedy, his self-absorption into passion. Washington Post, "In ‘Jack,’ Marilynne Robinson’s fourth Gilead novel, a lost soul embarks on an impossible love affair," 21 Sep. 2020 Belinda Carlisle, the lead singer, enjoyed some solo success, but as is so often the case in these stories, the alchemy that made the Go-Go's click proved difficult to replicate. Brian Lowry, CNN, "'The Go-Go's' documentary will make you fall head over heels again," 30 July 2020

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.

See More

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

Keep scrolling for more

Learn More about alchemy

Time Traveler for alchemy

Time Traveler

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

See more words from the same century

Statistics for alchemy

Last Updated

9 Oct 2020

Cite this Entry

“Alchemy.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/alchemy. Accessed 22 Oct. 2020.

Keep scrolling for more

More Definitions for alchemy

alchemy

noun
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

alchemy

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

Keep scrolling for more

Comments on alchemy

What made you want to look up alchemy? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).

WORD OF THE DAY

Test Your Vocabulary

Farm Idioms Quiz

  • cow coming home
  • What does 'poke' refer to in the expression 'pig in a poke'?
Spell It

Can you spell these 10 commonly misspelled words?

TAKE THE QUIZ
Bee Cubed

Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way.

TAKE THE QUIZ
Love words? Need even more definitions?

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