The Grammarphobia Blog

The spirited life of “alcohol”

Q: I’m curious about the history of the term “alcohol.” How did a word for eye shadow come to mean the spirits we know and love?

A: The ultimate source of “alcohol” is Arabic, the language of a people associated with abstinence from alcohol.

The tipoff here is the “al” at the beginning of “alcohol.” Like the “al” in “alchemy,” “algebra,” and “algorithm,” it’s the Arabic equivalent of the definite article “the” in English.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says “alcohol” comes from the Arabic term “al-kuhul, literally ‘the kohl’—that is, powdered antimony used as a cosmetic for darkening the eyelids.”

Ayto gives this explanation of the usage from A Relation of a Journey, a 1615 book by George Sandys about his travels in the Middle East:

“They put between the eyelids and the eye a certain black powder made of a mineral brought from the kingdom of Fez, and called Alcohol.”

When the Arabic word first showed up in English (via medieval Latin) in the 1500s, it was a term in chemistry for “a fine powder, esp. as produced by grinding,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest citation is from Bartholomew Traheron’s 1543 translation of a book on surgery by the Spanish physician Juan de Vigo: “The barbarous auctours use alchohol, or (as I fynde it sometymes wryten) alcofoll, for moost fyne poudre.”

By the end of the 1500s, according to OED citations, the term “alcohol” was also being used to mean “a liquid essence or spirit obtained by distillation, as alcohol of wine.”

The first citation in the dictionary for the new usage is from Sclopatarie, John Hester’s 1590 translation of a book by the French physician Joseph Duchesne about the treatment of wounds:

“Circulate the Rubin of sulpure with the Alcoll of wine eight dayes.” (We assume a “Rubin of sulpure” is a sulfur rub or ointment.) 

The term “alcohol of wine,” according to Ayto’s etymological reference, referred to “the ‘quintessence of wine,’ produced by distillation or rectification.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) explains that this substance was “the constituent of fermented liquors that causes intoxication, and the term alcohol came to refer to this essence.”

“Eventually, the liquors that contained this essence began to be called alcohol, too,” American Heritage says in an etymology note. “In the terminology of modern chemistry, alcohol has also come to refer to the class of compounds to which ethanol belongs.”

It was in the early 1800s, according to OED citations, that “alcohol” acquired the modern meanings of a “substance consumed as the intoxicating ingredient of alcoholic drink,” or a “drink containing alcohol, such as beer, wine, gin, whiskey, etc.,” or an “intoxicating or spirituous liquor.”

The dictionary’s first citation for this new usage is from Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Heart of Midlothian (1818):

“Without asking farther questions, the landlady filled Dick Ostler a bumper of Hollands. He ducked with his head and shoulders, scraped with his more advanced hoof, bolted the alcohol, to use the learned phrase, and withdrew to his own domains.”

(We’ve expanded the OED citation. “Hollands” here is Hollands gin.)

The most recent Oxford example (which we’ll also expand) comes from Martin Amis’s novel The Pregnant Widow (2010):

“I wanted a couple of powerful ones to get me in the mood, so I looked in at the Saracen’s Head in Cambridge Circus, a place described to me, by Violet, as ‘good.’ Why, I wondered, did Violet think it was good, apart from the fact that it sold alcohol?”

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