Where does the word “alcohol” come from and What does it mean?

From very early times the women of East Asian countries, desiring to enhance their beauty, have stained their eyelids with a very fine dark powder. This they call koh’l.

The cosmetic is usually obtained from antimony. English writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in describing this cosmetic, thinking the definite article to be part of the word (al-koh’l), wrote it as alcohol.

Early chemists then took this name and applied it to any extremely fine powder, so fine that one could not feel the separate grains. Thus, as one example, powdered sulfur was known as “alcohol of sulfur,” a name that it retained into the nineteenth century.

In the next step, the notion of similarly complete refinement began to require the name alcohol for liquids which seemed to have reached the superlative of refining.

Such, in the late seventeenth century, seemed to have been attained by a wine which chemists and distillers spoke of as “alcohol of wine,” and the term alcohol has since applied to liquids partly or wholly of the composition of that wine.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

Leave a Comment