The Origin Of The Word 'Alcohol' – Science Friday

Science Diction

“The cause of (and solution to) all life’s problems” is derived from Arabic. But the word ‘alcohol’ originally referred to a method of manufacturing makeup, among other things.

This is a part of Science Diction, a series digging into the scientific origin stories behind our words and language. Find all our stories and previous issues here.

First Known Use: 1672 Etymology:

Like many words in science that begin with al-, “the cause of (and solution to) all life’s problems” is derived from the Arabic al-kuhul or al-kohl. But the term originally referred to a method of manufacturing makeup (among other things).

The Legend Goes…

People have been making—and drinking—alcohol for nearly as long as human history. Residue from a beerlike, 13,000-year-old fermented drink was recently unearthed in Israel, and evidence of a fermented drink of rice, honey, and fruit discovered in China dates to 7000–6600 BCE. But how did we come up with a name for those drinks that make us feel so nice and fuzzy?

We want to be upfront here: Like the result of over-imbibing, this scientific origin story is a bit hazy. Few primary sources remain, and the tale has almost certainly been storified over the centuries.

In the first century, CE, Alexandria, Egypt, was thriving. The city was a hotbed of intellectuals and academics, providing an ideal setting for scientific innovation.

An engraving of Maria the Jewess. Credit: Wellcome Collection/Wikimedia Commons

“It’s a science city, it’s an academic city, there’s universities and labs and [the famous library],” says Adam Rogers, author of the book Proof: The Science of Booze. “And there’s a woman named Maria the Jewess.”

We don’t know much about Maria; much of the tale blends the historical with the mythical.

Illustration of a bain-marie. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The story goes that she

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