The word alcohol has a long and surprising history. Yesterday the words antimony and stibnite were derived-going back 5,000 years to the Ancient Egyptian eye make up known as kohl. Alcohol first entered English in the 1540s meaning a fine powder produced by sublimation, which derived from the Medeival Latin word alcohol which was borrowed from the Arabic al-kuhul meaning the powdered ore of antimony. The word kohl (kuhul) had been used for thousands of years to denote various types of powdered ores used for eye makeup, including both antimony and lead sulfide, both of which were poisonous to humans. When the word alcohol arrived in wide use in English, its use was confined to eye cosmetic for over a hundred years-it wasn’t until the 1670s that its use was widened to include any sublimated substance, though it still mostly referred to powders. It wasn’t used for the drink until the 1750s when it was used as an adjective-as alcohol of wine-to indicate the intoxicating agent in wine. Another hundred years would pass before organic chemists would classify alcohols as a group of compounds with a hydroxyl functional group (-OH) bound to a carbon atom.
The kohl container pictured above is marked with the name of the Egyptian Pharaoh Queen Tiye (c. 1398 BC – 1338 BC, also spelled Taia, Tiy and Tiyi), wife of the great pharaoh Amenhotep III, whose cartouche also appears.
Image appears courtesy Keith Schengili-Roberts, who photographed it at the Brooklyn Museum, used with permission under a Creative Commons 3.0 license. Image of ethanol, commonly referred to as pure alcohol, grain alcohol, etc, the primary intoxicant in alcoholic beverages.