An organic compound having a → hydroxyl
(-OH) group attached to a carbon atom. Specifically the term is
applied to ethyl alcohol or → ethanol
(C2H5OH). Alcohol exists abundantly in the
→ interstellar medium in gaseous state also in the
form of → methanol.
The discovery of alcohol is attributed to the Iranian physician and scientist
Mohammad son of Zakariyâ Râzi (864-930 AD, known in Europe as Razes or Rhazes).
He wrote in Ar., which was the scientific language of
that period. However, he himself did not use a specific term for this substance
as far as we know.
Alcohol was first used in medicine about 1250 by two Italian physicians Valis de Furo and
Thaddaeus of Florence. It was not yet called alcohol, but aqua ardens or
aqua vini. The name alcohol, of Arabic origin, was introduced by
the Swiss alchemist and physician Paracelsus (1493-1541) in the
sixteenth century. It is composed of two parts,
al-, a definite article (like "the"), plus a second component the origin of
which is not clear.
A broadly spread explanation for the second component is (kuHl)
الکحل, originally the name of antimony reduced to a fine powder used especially to
darken eyelids. The powder is prepared by sublimation of the natural mineral
antimony sulfide (Sb2S3). According to this opinion, the meaning of
alkuhl would have been first extended by European alchemists to distilled substances in
general, and then narrowed to ethanol. Paracelsus indeed defines the terms alcohol
and alcool as
"the most subtle part of anything." It is in that sense that he calls the substance
alcool vini, that is, the most subtle part of wine. Moreover, it is always
as "alcool vini" or "alcohol vini" that he uses this term, never "alcohol" alone. Later
chemists dropped the "vini" and let the alcohol stand alone for the name
(see M. M. Pattison Muir, Story of Alchemy and the Beginning of Chemistry, 1902, p. 192).
We note that the word used in current
Ar. for this substance is الکحول (alkuHul) and not الکحل
(alkuHl). That word may be the Ar. rendering of the
European term (probably from the older Fr. form alcohol) loaned in modern times.
Alternatively, the word alcohol would originate
from another Ar. word, al-ghaul (الغول), meaning
"an oppression of the mind, a loss of the senses (from drunkenness), a head-ache" also
"spirit, demon." This derivation would be consistent with the
use of "spirit" or "spirit of wine" as synonymous of "alcohol" in most
Western languages. If this second etymology is correct,
the popular etymology and the spelling
"alcohol" would not be due to generalization of the meaning of
al-kuhl, but rather to Western alchemists and authors confusing
the two words al-kuhl and al-ghaul, because of the lack of the "gh" sound
in European languages. The problem with this etymology is that no specific word is found
in classical Ar. for designating "alcohol."