Curiosities on the drinks terminology
Starting the new year with a desire for creative and engaging talks, we looked at the original meanings of two common terms referring to drinks: alcohol and spirits. Here are some curiosities you might find interesting to reveal the roots of our modern language.
Al-kohl, al-kuhul… and Alcohol
Usually drinks are specifically distinguished as ‘alcoholic beverages’ because of their content: but where does the word ‘alcohol’ come from? According to numerous scientific sources the terms originated from the Arabic al-kuhul or al-kohl which referred to a method of manufacturing makeup in ancient Egypt, when men and women alike used a thick dark paste made of different chemicals (kohl) to cover the borders of their eyes.
The practice was both a superstitious belief to protect their souls and avoid evil spirits (or better, the ‘evil eye’), and an actual cure to the eye infections circulating in the desert. The interesting aspect is that kohl was a substance obtained through one of the earliest processes of distillation in human history!
Thanks to the developments of chemical experiments and scientific research, in Middle Age Europe the methods of distillation became very well known. Although it is difficult to trace the exact first usage of the term ‘alcohol’ in relation to distilled drinks (and by extension, to every other similar drink we know today), the most probable explanation is that the term ‘alcohol’ became very popular particularly among 14th century alchemists. During the dark periods of the Middle Age, the word assumed also a pejorative connotation due to the growing excessive usage of any distilled beverages. However, we must learn from history and not forget the true meaning suggested by the wise Egyptians: similarly to its origins, the term al-cohol has been largely employed also for curative and medicinal purposes, attesting its multiple functions and ways of consumption when properly regulated.
Why do we call them ‘Spirits’?
Other fascinating stories can be traced back to the initial definitions of alcoholic drinks as ‘spirits’: when we ask about the linguistic root of the word, we must consider the complex genealogy deriving from the Ancient Roman times. In fact, from the Latin word ‘spiritus’ meaning ‘respiration, a breathing activity’ and the ‘spirare’ (blowing) of the wind, numerous meanings have been attached to ‘spirit’ evolving around notions of ‘breath of life’ or ‘disposition of the character, vigour, courage and pride’.
Apart from the different references to ‘holy or demonic spirits’ present in several religious traditions across the world, we need to observe the materiality of the word. Going back again to the alchemic experimentations of the 14th century, we discover that the term spirit came to identify a “volatile substance, a distillate”, which united vaporous elements into a liquid form. Among the first people to use distillation purely for alcohol, the famous monk Roman Lull wrote specific formulas for scientific purposes, which could ‘lose’ the alcoholic substance from the wine or liquor.
Considering that during those times chemistry and supernatural beliefs overlapped, the process of distillation was seen in alchemic terms: the spirit of the liquor leaves the lower alcohol base liquid, and comes back down in a purer form to drink, thus gathering the ‘spirit’ out of the material. Later in the 1670s the word spirit was associated with an energetic sense, a vital principle in men and animals, causing a particular character and disposition, a way of thinking and feeling, a state of mind. In conclusion, when we drink the distilled (spirited) elements collected from the vapour, we drink the essence of the liquor which ignites our own spirit: be careful with spirits, they are highly flammable!
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