I have a long-standing passion for the origins of words, especially those that cross the borders between languages and cultures, the travelling words, which I call “My Web of Words.”
There are of course those words that the West has borrowed from Eastern languages — Arabic, Persian, Turkish, the Indian languages and others still; then there are those Western words that the Arabs, Turks or Japanese have adopted; but the ones in which I’m most interested are those that have gone both ways.
Such has been the lot of the word ‘alcohol’, for instance. No one will be surprised to learn that, in the Arab world, alcoholic drinks are called al-kuhul. Quite naturally, you would be tempted to think that this word gave French alcool and English ‘alcohol’. You would be wrong; the evidence strongly suggests that it is in fact Arabic that very recently borrowed al-kuhul from European languages. Indeed, you won’t find the word in classic Arabic literature. The ancient poets enjoyed drink as much as the modern ones do, and often wrote of it in rapturous terms. But they never called it al-kuhul. That which Islam advises against or forbids — and promises to those who enter Paradise — is khamr, a word that denotes wine specifically and alcoholic drinks more generally, and which is still commonly used.
Having said that, the word ‘alcohol’ does, in fact, come from Arabic — but it came with quite another meaning, and in a much more roundabout way. Al-kuhl originally described the powdered antimony used as make up, a meaning it has retained in current Arabic usage and which some Western languages have borrowed, as in the French words khôl, kohl or kohol, and the English ‘kohl’. When physicians subjected this antimony to high heat, it produced a cloud of fine powder. The direct transformation of a substance from solid to gas without passing through a liquid state is called sublimation. The gas produced by this method was called ‘alcohol’, a word that became synonymous with ‘spirit’, in the sense of ‘spirits-of-wine’ or ‘spirituous’. Little by little, around the 11th Century, the word came to describe all distilled drinks, and finally all alcoholic drinks; and it is this meaning — which no longer has anything to do with ‘kohl’ – that the word took back to Arabic, most probably around the 19th Century, certainly no earlier.
This is just the first example of the to-and-fro that travelling words undergo. I plan to bring up more in future posts.