As a writer I’m aware of the shape of words and how strong (or otherwise) they look. If I were penning a tale of mysterious goings on in some underground cavern I’d probably include Sulphur because people expect there to be Sulphur and because Sulphur looks like a word we’d associate with the dark side (whatever the element’s actual qualities). Now though I couldn’t do that- or at least not without having an incorrectly spelt word in my text because Sulphur no longer exists. Welcome instead to Sulfur.
Mmm, it doesn’t look as good at all does it. Sulphur suggests dark dancing devils and hordes of winged bats summoned up chanting priests in orange cloaks chucking lots of the stuff into a metal dish. Sulfur suggests a washing up powder that makes your whites even whiter. So how did we come to this pass? Why does the word we learned at school and which pervades literature about any dark cavern suddenly no longer count? Zillions of chemistry lessons and pharmaceutical courses are now wrong! When did this happen and why?
It’s all down to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (not Kemistry). The IUPAC are responsible for the nomenclature of organic and inorganic molecules. Not sure who gave them this remit but they seem to own it and have declared that Sulphur should always have been spelt Sulfur. Not only that but Sulphate is Sulpfate, Sulphuric acid is Sulfuric and so on.
If you look at the origins of the word, you can find both spellings come from different eras of Latin but it was actually initially spelt with an f. However being the UK in the fourteenth century we seemingly decided to spell it differently (the early stirrings of Brexit clearly already showing) using a ph and that’s well and good except that this became a bit of a fad. For example the word fantastic was spelt phantastic. The ph orginates from Greek and back then people really did think the ph made words look more impressive.
This lasted until 1990 when the IUPAC spoiled the fun and declared we would return to the spelling sulfur herewith and soon other obscure but elaborately monikered organisations followed suit. The Royal Society of Chemistry Nomenclature Committee made the ruling in 1992 followed in 2000 by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority for England and Wales. Recently the `f` spelling has started to appear on medicines and now features in all school examinations so a generation or two has now grown up unaware of Sulphur. Like a world without smartphones (or should that be smartfones?) they cannot appreciate the ph.
It’s fun to think that perhaps other ph words will be outlawed in future. Perhaps the name Philip will become Filip. Or the word phrase will be replaced by frase. Or (snip- that’s enough phing about)