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How Two Arabic Words Led Us to Call Some Alcohols ‘Spirits’

Food and Drink By
Scotch or bourbon whiskey (or whisky) being poured into a glass with dramatic studio lighting and a black background. (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)


If you’re the type of drinker who doesn’t care whether you’re enjoying a pricey dram, sipping a Napoleonic cognac, downing a Rum Collins, or doing tequila shots (as is pictured above), this will be something that never occurred to you: There’s an actual, etymological reason why some alcohols are referred to as “spirits.”

According to Scientific American notes, the distinction began with a debate over a pair of Arabic words. Merriam-Webster’s pinpoints the first of the two: the Arabic word al-kuhul, or “the kohl,” a distilled or powdered version of antimony, often used for cosmetic purposes. The distillation process of antimony renders “the spirit”—which eventually made its way to refer to distilled alcoholic beverages.

A competing theory stems from the Quran. In verse 37:47, the word al-ghawl is used, which is defined as “demon” or “spirit,” but is actually used in reference to wine. (It’s also where we got the English word “ghoul” from). This theory seems a bit more obvious. given that it involves a word that sounds like “alcohol” and means “spirit.”

We’re not sure which theory is the correct one, but it is funny that that the words for alcohol are so closely related to “eyeliner” and “ghoul.” The next time you’re at a pub or bar, you’ll see one of those things for sure.