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al·co·hol (ălkə-hôl, -hŏl)
1. Any of a series of hydroxyl compounds, the simplest of which are derived from saturated hydrocarbons, have the general formula CnH2n+1OH, and include ethanol and methanol.
2. A colorless volatile flammable liquid, C2H5OH, synthesized or obtained by fermentation of sugars and starches and widely used, either pure or denatured, as a solvent and in drugs, cleaning solutions, explosives, and intoxicating beverages. Also called ethanol, ethyl alcohol, grain alcohol.
3. Intoxicating beverages containing ethanol considered as a group: the national consumption of alcohol.

[Medieval Latin, fine metallic powder, especially of antimony, from Arabic al-kul : al-, the + kul, powder of antimony; see kx̣l in the Appendix of Semitic roots.]

Word History: The al- in alcohol may alert some readers to the fact that this is a word of Arabic descent, as is the case with algebra and alkali, al- being the Arabic definite article corresponding to the in English. The second part of the word, -cohol, comes from Arabic kul, the word for a fine powder (most often made from antimony) used as a cosmetic to darken the eyelids. In fact, kul has given us the word kohl for such a preparation. The Arabic phrase al-ku, "the kohl," was borrowed into Medieval Latin as one word, alcohol, "kol." From Medieval Latin it was borrowed into English in the 16th century. In English, alcohol came to refer to any fine powder produced in a number of ways, as by heating a substance to a gaseous state and then cooling it. Alcohol could also be used to refer to essences obtained by distillation. One of these distilled essences produced by alchemists and early chemists, known as alcohol of wine, was the constituent of fermented liquors that causes intoxication, and the term alcohol came to refer to this essence (what modern chemists would call ethanol) in particular. Eventually, the liquors that contained this essence began to be called alcohol, too. In the terminology of modern chemistry, alcohol has also come to refer to the class of compounds to which ethanol belongs.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2022 by HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

Indo-European & Semitic Roots Appendices

    Thousands of entries in the dictionary include etymologies that trace their origins back to reconstructed proto-languages. You can obtain more information about these forms in our online appendices:

    Indo-European Roots

    Semitic Roots

    The Indo-European appendix covers nearly half of the Indo-European roots that have left their mark on English words. A more complete treatment of Indo-European roots and the English words derived from them is available in our Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.