Origin of the Word Alcohol

Posted on 10 Jun 2016 21:43

The word alcohol has a strange origin. First, it comes from a part of the world where many people never, ever drink alcohol. Where it is, in fact, often against the law to do so: The Middle East. It also comes from a word that has nothing to do with a liquid, nor an intoxicating substance of any kind.

Alcohol comes from the Arabic word al-kuhul (al kohl). It referred to a fine black powder used as a dark eye-coloring cosmetic. Today, the word kohl is still refers to a makeup used for outlining the eyes.

Al kuhul was obtained by sublimation. This refers to heating a solid to a vapor and then condensing it down again so that a very fine powder is obtained. The same word may have been used even if simple pulverization was used. Specifically, the material was antimony, obtained from the mineral stibnite, a soft grey-colored mineral often found in quartz veins.

Around the 16th century, the word was borrowed into English to refer to any fine powder, possibly by way of Middle Latin and French. The indefinite article "al" was thought to be a part of the word, so that one word, alcohol, was formed.


Powdered Kohl
Image by Mmm1985 via wikimediaImage Credit

Alcohol later came to refer to anything obtained through sublimation, and through distillation, including a fluid. The name was applied to spirits created by the distillation (vaporization and then condensation) of wine, and then as the spirit of any fermented liquid. All other meanings were subsequently lost so that today the term alcohol in everyday usage refers only to the intoxicating spirit, ethyl alcohol (ethanol).

Although knowledge of an inflammable "spirit" given off by wine is ancient, the discovery of pure alcohol is usually attributed to the Persian alchemist and physician Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (Rhazes or Rasis). He was the first physician to use alcohol systematically in medical practice.

However, chemically, although the word alcohol originally referred only to ethanol as found in alcoholic beverages, it now refers to any organic compound in which the hydroxyl functional group is bound to a saturated carbon atom. Ethanol is a by-product of yeast metabolism and is found naturally occurring in nature, such as in over-ripe fruit. Another alcohol, methanol is also found naturally in small amounts, as a by-product of some anaerobic bacteria.

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