VIAS Encyclopedia provides a collection of tables and definitions commonly needed in science and engineering.

Etymology of the Word "Alcohol"

The word "alcohol" almost certainly comes from the Arabic language (the "al-" prefix being the Arabic definite article); however, the precise origin is unclear. It was introduced into Europe, together with the art of distillation and the substance itself, around the 12th century by various European authors who translated and popularized the discoveries of Islamic alchemists.

A popular theory, found in many dictionaries, is that it comes from الكحل = ALKHL = al-kuhul, originally the name of very finely powdered antimony sulfide Sb2S3 used as an antiseptic and eyeliner. The powder is prepared by sublimation of the natural mineral stibnite in a closed vessel. According to this theory, the meaning of alkuhul would have been first extended to distilled substances in general, and then narrowed to ethanol. This conjectured etymology has been circulating in England since 1672 at least (OED).

However, this derivation is suspicious since the current Arabic name for alcohol, الكحول = ALKHWL = al???, does not derive from al-kuhul. The Quran in verse 37:47 uses the word الغول = ALGhWL = al-ghawl — properly meaning "spirit" ("spiritual being") or "demon" — with the sense "the thing that gives the wine its headiness". The word al-ghawl also originated the English word "ghoul", and the name of the star Algol. This derivation would, of course, be consistent with the use of "spirit" or "spirit of wine" as synonymous of "alcohol" in most Western languages. (Incidentally, the etymology "alcohol" = "the devil" was used in the 1930s by the U.S. Temperance Movement for propaganda purposes.)

According to the second theory, the popular etymology and the spelling "alcohol" would not be due to generalization of the meaning of ALKHL, but rather to Western alchemists and authors confusing the two words ALKHL and ALGhWL, which have indeed been transliterated in many different and overlapping ways. The fact that stibnite is also mentioned in the Hebrew Bible under the name כהל = kohel = "" can only have contributed to the confusion.

Last Update: 2004-12-21