Saturday, March 11, 2017

Alcohol — Latin, Arabic, or Indian/Hindu? An Etymology

hat is the etymology of the word “alcohol”?

According to Wikipedia, “the word alcohol appears in English as a term for a very fine powder in the sixteenth century. It was borrowed from French, which took it from medical Latin. Ultimately the word is from the Arabic كحل (al-kuḥl, “kohl, a powder used as an eyeliner”). Al- is the Arabic definitive article, equivalent to the in English;
What is somewhat puzzling is the reference the Wikipedia page relies on in passing pronouncement on the etymology of the word. The sole claim is a link to a site named VIAS — as in “Virtual Institute of Applied Science”, which is described as “An online encyclopedia of science topics, with a Mathematics section as well as a German/English dictionary.

This VIAS site itself is however more circumspect. It writes (bold emphasis mine)— “The word “alcohol” almost certainly comes from the Arabic language”, and later (again, bold emphasis mine), “A popular theory, found in many dictionaries, is that it comes from الكحل = ALKHL = al-kuhul, originally the name of very finely powdered antimony sulfide Sb2S3 used as an antiseptic and eyeliner. … However, this derivation is suspicious

The writer(s) of the Wikipedia article seem to have added an element of certainty that the source itself does not impute.

That “al” is the Arab definitive article is not in doubt. However, what is not quite clear is where did the other part of the word — “cohol” or its variations — derive from. To answer that question, a hint is provided if one realizes that much, if not all, of Arabic math and science came from India. Arab travellers to the Indian subcontinent carried back to Arab lands copious quantities of knowledge that they then put to use in their trade. The decimal number-system (you know — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and that round integer that made math possible — 0!) is just one such example. First developed by Hindu mathematicians (“Indian” for those squeamish about crediting Hinduism with anything useful), it was used by Arab traders to ease their accounting, and the West slowly adopted this number system — almost a thousand years after it had been developed in the Indian subcontinent. The branch of mathematics known as “Algebra” is another such case, where the Arab traveller al-Khwarizmi translated Hindu texts on mathematics and which then acquired the name “Algebra”.

A page from the ancient medical text, Susruta samhita. [credit, Wikipedia]
Therefore, when one learns that “kohala” (कोहल) is the Sanskrit word for an alcoholic preparation in Ayurvedic medicine, it becomes a near-certainty that the word “alcohol” can be located to the Indian subcontinent and its origins to ancient Hindu texts on medicine and science. In fact, one of the the texts of Susruta (the ancient Indian scientist to whom we owe the word “suture”) — Susruta Samhita — describes the three stages of human and animal behavior after the consumption of alcoholic beverages!

Reference: “Indian Tradition of Chemistry and Chemical Technology”, Prof. A.R. Vasudeva Murthy, Prasun Kumar Mishra.

I first wrote this post in Medium on May 1, 2016.

© 2017, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.