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The Ghostly Etymology of Six Common Cocktail Terms

Animation by Eric DeFreitas

Words and phrases like “spirits” or “angel’s share” are often used to describe alcohol, and it’s no coincidence. These terms hint at the long history of beliefs that booze blurs boundaries and bridges the gap between our world and another.

Here, we dig into the historical and cultural reasons why six boozy terms have supernatural connotations.

1. Spirits

We give alcohol credit for raising our spirits. But the reason the term is only used to describe liquor is due to 8th century Middle Eastern alchemists who mastered alembic, or pot still distillation. When experimenting with medical elixirs, they noticed an escaping vapor that condensed into a higher-quality liquid. They believed this vapor was the life essence of the material leaving, or breathing, during distillation.

The quest to create medicinal elixirs by gathering the material’s distilled “spirit” carried into the Roman Empire. These distilled products came to be known as spirare, or Latin for breathe.

By the end of the 15th century, distilled medicinal spirits became mainstream across Europe, where they eventually evolved into the drinks like brandy and whiskey that we know today.

2. Alcohol

There are several stories behind the etymology of the word alcohol. One relates to the distillation process. Ancient Egyptians used al kohl, a fine powder akin to modern eyeliner, that was made from distilled and condensed chemicals. The term shifted to al kuhul, or alcohol, and represented all distilled products.

Another theory connects the beverage to ghoulishness. Many believe that the term comes from the Arabic words al-ghol or al ghawl, ghouls and demons present in ancient Arabian mythology and historical texts.

Hajar A. Hajar, a cardiologist, literary historian, poet and former Minister of Public Health in Qatar, is often cited on this connection. In an article by a colleague, Hajar wrote a sidebar that cites two definitions for al-kol or al-ghol from old Arabic dictionaries: a shape-shifting genie or spirit in Arabic mythology, and “any drug or substance that takes the mind away or covers it.”

3. Libation

The word libation stems from the Latin word libatio, which means pouring out an offering to honor the gods.

For instance, it was common in ancient Greece to pour wine over a sacrificial flame to include the gods in a celebration. Even the weary heroes of The Iliad and The Odyssey gave a bit of wine to the other world before drinking the rest.