MUNDANE MYSTERIES: Why Are Liquors Called “Spirits”?

Ever wondered, while sitting at a bar or enjoying an adult beverage at home, why liquors are called “spirits”? I mean, sure…the way people act after a few shots of vodka may make it seem like they’ve been possessed by a ghost or demon. But is that the reason some refer to gin, tequila, whiskey, and more as “spirits”?

There’s one theory that surrounds alcohol’s association with a very specific spirit: the Holy Spirit. In most Christian denominations, the Holy Spirit is the third member of the Holy Trinity, alongside God & Jesus. The theory refers to certain places in the Bible where the effects of the Holy Spirit were mistakenly labeled as being brought on by an over-indulgence of alcohol. For instance, in the New Testament, Jesus’s disciples were said to have been “filled with the Holy Spirit” during Pentecost before eventually “speaking in tongues” (i.e., “other languages than their native tongues”). Not understanding the significance of what was really going on, bystanders simply laughed off the strange behavior as merely being a symptom of the disciples having drunk too much wine.

A more likely explanation, however, centers on the etymology of the word “alcohol”, itself. “Alcohol” is believed to have been derived from one of two old Arabic words. “Al-ghawl” literally means “spirit”, and is even mentioned in the Qur’an as a spirit or demon that gives wine its intoxicating effects. The other potential root word is “al-koh’l”, which is was a type of eyeliner made from a black powdery mineral called stibnite. The way stibnite would be transformed into eventual makeup was very similar to how liquids would get distilled, so “al-koh’l” very likely could’ve gotten co-opted to mean anything that was “distilled”.

When the word “alcohol” eventually first showed up in the English language, back in the 1500s, it was used to describe the spirit, or essence, of something distilled from some other ingredient, as in “the alcohol of wine.” So, it’s not really surprising that before long people just began calling those spirits “spirits”. Makes sense, right? Cuts right to the “chaser”. (See what I did there?)

Got a Mundane Mystery you’d like solved? Send me a message via social media (@AndyWebbRadioVoice), or shoot me an email at [email protected].

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