Of Arabic Origin – Alcohol

Lebanese grapes, from my father’s garden

The world is a big place and we all have a journey to take. Whether it is moving out of your parent’s house, going to the city or packing up and heading to Australia, you have a story to tell, and that story is encapsulated in the person that you are.

In a similar way, different foods have had their very own journey. Dishes migrate across cultures and continents, get adapted for regional produce and cooking techniques, and changed for local tastes. It is interesting to me how food’s history can be evident and stored in its name, a story told in the singular word. And though the word can be altered by local tongues, in many cases, the dish perseveres against time, and its name still points home.

I intend to write several entries on this very subject, but to demonstrate the idea, I’ll start with something that will make your head spin. I’m talking of course about alcohol.

The reason why alcohol is so dear to me is because Lebanon is one of the oldest wine growing regions in the world, if not the oldest. It is a contraversial subject, but this is what Michael Karam, the author of “The Wines of Lebanon”, has to say (click here for the full, very interesting article):

“The boffins are still arguing about that one, but there is no doubt it was a very long time ago, perhaps 2 million years, when Homo sapiens, on his great trek from Ethiopia, reached Lebanon and tasted the fermented juice of a Vinis Vinifera Sylvestris. It’s a nice thought. More plausible however is that Lebanese Neolithic villages may have domesticated the grape as early as 9000 BC, as they did in Turkey and Syria. What we do know is that 4,000 years ago Phoenician wine, made from vines brought from the Caucasus, was exported and drunk all over the Mediterranean, and that around 1,760 years ago the Romans built a temple to the wine god Bacchus in Baalbek, which still stands today….”

So having established, that yes, alcohol has originated from my neck of the vineyards, what does the word mean? And how is it of Arabic origin?

Alcohol occurs due to sugar fermentation to produce drinks such as wine, beer or cider, and it may be followed by the process of distillation to produce spirits such as vodka, gin or arak. Fermentation is something that happens naturally, and many cultures consider it as a form of preserving food (such as grapes), much like jam making. Distillation is a bit different, and is totally awesome as it’s meant to get you drunk. The technique of distillation of alcohol was discovered by Muslim chemists sometime between the 8th and 9th century. Arabs back in those days were leading the world in chemistry (another word originating from Arabic), arithmetic, medicine and good manners. They discovered the flammable alcoholic vapour, and then they invented the alembic (al embic, meaning the still) which works on the principle that alcohol evaporates at lower temperatures than water. So the spirit was isolated, but the thing is, since the ingestion of alcohol is prohibited in Islam, the chemists found various uses for it, but didn’t drink it (at least in public). It’s primary uses were for medicine, and in making perfumes and makeup. The origin of the word is still not determined fully, but is somewhere between these 2 explanations, where the word “Al” means “The”:

  1. Al Kohool: the makeup, referring to the use of the distillate in the manufacture of eyeliner. The word kohool is the plural of kohol, which means eyeliner. Al Kohool is the current Arabic word for alcohol, and is the most likely explanation.
  2. Al Ghoul: the same word exists in English, ghoul, means monster or spirit, and is similar to how we refer to alcohol as “spirits”. Though it is far removed from the current Arabic word, it is possible that the word had reentered the Arabic vocabulary due to foreign influence, and modified to its current form.

Take your time, and consider these explanations, and try to think of other words that start with “Al”, and there is a possibility they could be Arabic. Don’t come back to me with Al Gore.

So, I hope this has been educational. Tune in next time to discuss “ceviche“!


  • enlightening, tastefuly patriotic, quite witty and always articulate… thank you for your insight into the wonderful world of food…

  • From Wikipedia:


    The word alcohol appears in English in the 16th century, loaned via French from medical Latin, ultimately from the Arabic الكحل (al-kuḥl, "the kohl, a powder used as an eyeliner").

    ال al is Arabic for the definitive article, the in English.

    The current Arabic name for alcohol is الكحول al-kuḥūl, re-introduced from western usage.

    kuḥl was the name given to the very fine powder, produced by the sublimation of the natural mineral stibnite to form antimony sulfide Sb2S3 (hence the essence or "spirit" of the substance), which was used as an antiseptic and eyeliner.

    Bartholomew Traheron in his 1543 translation of John of Vigo introduces the word as a term used by "barbarous" (Moorish) authors for "fine powder":

    the barbarous auctours use alcohol, or (as I fynde it sometymes wryten) alcofoll, for moost fine poudre.

    William Johnson in his 1657 Lexicon Chymicum glosses the word as antimonium sive stibium. By extension, the word came to refer to any fluid obtained by distillation, including "alcohol of wine", the distilled essence of wine. Libavius in Alchymia (1594) has vini alcohol vel vinum alcalisatum. Johnson (1657) glosses alcohol vini as quando omnis superfluitas vini a vino separatur, ita ut accensum ardeat donec totum consumatur, nihilque fæcum aut phlegmatis in fundo remaneat. The word's meaning became restricted to "spirit of wine" (ethanol) in the 18th century, and was again extended to the family of substances so called in modern chemistry from 1850.

  • enlightening. whenever I mention the Arabic etymology of something, my kids say " mom, you sound like the guy in "my big fat Greek wedding"

  • Isn't it fascinating though, tasteofbeirut? Especially when it gives you more insight about the thing itself…

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