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Will Styler

Associate Teaching Professor of Linguistics at UC San Diego

Director of UCSD's Computational Social Science Program

The Alchemical origin of “Hermetically Sealed”

This was originally posted on my blog, Notes from a Linguistic Mystic in 2007. See all posts

In English, when you want to express that a container is completely airtight or sealed, you can talk about it being “Hermetically sealed”. Although the term sounds very scientific, the origin is actually rooted not in science, but in Alchemy and Spellcasting.

Hermes Trismegistus (‘Hermes the Thrice Majestic’) was the Mythical founder of both alchemy and astrology, and a God of Ancient Greece. Several very important alchemical texts are attributed to him (including the Emerald Tablet), and for some Greeks, he took the place of both the Greek God Hermes and of Thoth, the Egyptian God of writing and science.

As you may have figured out, origin of “hermetically” comes from the Latin form of Hermes’ name (‘Hermeticus’). Hermes’ name is associated with this concept because he was purported to be able to magically seal a box or chest in such a way that it could never be opened. Thanks, Wikipedia Later on, in the 17th century, Hermes’ name became linked to secrets and seals. The term “Hermetically Sealed” was then popularized by an invention called the Magdeburg Hemispheres, which used a vacuum to remain sealed no matter the force applied to take them apart.

So, what sounds like a nice, scientific Latin term is really a relic of Ancient Alchemy. Aren’t word origins awesome?

Now, off to bag up my shampoo and contact solution, hoping they don’t leak in my luggage on the plane. Where’s Hermes and his magical seal when you need him?