trans·​mu·​ta·​tion ˌtran(t)s-myu̇-ˈtā-shən How to pronounce transmutation (audio)
: an act or instance of transmuting or being transmuted: such as
: the conversion of base metals into gold or silver
: the conversion of one element or nuclide into another either naturally or artificially
transmutative adjective

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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.

Example Sentences

Recent Examples on the Web It’s when those words are set to music and dramatized by a singer of skill and sympathy that the magical transmutation occurs. Jody Rosen, Los Angeles Times, 27 Oct. 2022 Fire is this volatile thing that is hard to control, that is hypnotic, that is beautiful, that is both an agent of terror and an agent of transmutation. Nick Romano,, 11 Aug. 2022 Now, maybe that’s the point, maybe the goal here is whiskey transmutation. Jonah Flicker, Robb Report, 26 June 2022 After the war, a strange feat of transmutation took place. Samanth Subramanian, The New Republic, 8 Mar. 2022 Paquette, a theoretical physicist at the University of Washington, is not alone in thinking about this strange kind of dimensional transmutation. Adam Becker, Scientific American, 20 Jan. 2022 But what of the fabled transmutation of lead to gold? John Matson, Scientific American, 31 Jan. 2014 Faced with the bankruptcy trustee's collection efforts, John Sarkisian and his wife Bernadette entered into a transmutation agreement whereby Bernadette apparently ended up with the most valuable assets as her separate property. Jay Adkisson, Forbes, 30 Oct. 2021 With the dawn of the atomic age in the 20th century, however, the transmutation of elements finally became possible. John Matson, Scientific American, 31 Jan. 2014 See More

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

Word History


Middle English transmutacioun, from Anglo-French or Latin; Anglo-French transmutacion, from Latin transmutation-, transmutatio, from transmutare

First Known Use

14th century, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of transmutation was in the 14th century

Dictionary Entries Near transmutation

Cite this Entry

“Transmutation.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 4 Dec. 2022.

Kids Definition



trans·​mu·​ta·​tion ˌtran(t)s-myu̇-ˈtā-shən How to pronounce transmutation (audio)
: an act or example of transmuting or being transmuted
especially : the changing of one element into another (as of base metals into gold or silver)

Medical Definition



trans·​mu·​ta·​tion ˌtran(t)s-myu̇-ˈtā-shən, ˌtranz- How to pronounce transmutation (audio)
: an act or instance of changing: as
: the evolutionary change of one species into another
: the conversion of one element or nuclide into another either naturally or artificially

Legal Definition



trans·​mu·​ta·​tion ˌtranz-myü-ˈtā-shən, ˌtrans- How to pronounce transmutation (audio)
: a doctrine in property law which allows the conversion of a separate property interest into marital or community property by agreement between spouses or by contribution of marital or community assets to the separate property (as for maintenance or improvements)
also : a doctrine in property law which allows the conversion of a marital or community property interest into separate property
: an act or instance of converting a property interest in accordance with the doctrine of transmutation
absent a transmutation by deed

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