Fact Check

Does 'Alcohol' Come from Arabic Word for 'Body-Eating Spirit'?

The claim is tipsy, to say the least.

Published Feb. 23, 2024

 (Mx. Granger/Wikimedia Commons)
Image Via Mx. Granger/Wikimedia Commons
Claim:
The origins of the word "alcohol" come from the Arabic term "al-ghoul," which means "body-eating spirit."

Some rumors are too hazy to be believed. For years, claims have connected the root of the word "alcohol" to an Arabic term that purportedly means "body-eating spirit." 

In a 2023 episode of his podcast, "Hotboxin'," boxer Mike Tyson discussed his past alcoholism. His co-host Sebastian Joseph Day said, "If I'm correct … alcohol actually stands for al-ghoul, it's like an actual evil spirit. So actually it brings it out of you."

A number of online posts have shared versions of the claim using varied and sometimes incorrect spellings like "al-ghoul" and "al-kuhl." One 2020 post on Reddit's r/stopdrinking subreddit stated, "'Alcohol' comes from the Arabic 'al-kuhl,' which means 'BODY EATING SPIRIT.'"

"Alcohol" comes from the Arabic "al-kuhl," which means "BODY EATING SPIRIT".
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Many of these claims miss the mark or get only part of the story correct. The word "alcohol" is actually derived from the Arabic "al-kuhul," or "kohl," which is a dark powder used to paint the eyelids. As such, we rate this claim as "False."

The Merriam-Webster dictionary notes alcohol's Arabic roots: "When alcohol first appeared in English, it was used to describe powders such as kohl, and did not take on its current meaning until the 18th century." 

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, one of the word's earliest known uses was in the early 15th century as "alcofol" to describe a "fine powder produced by sublimation":

from Medieval Latin alcohol "powdered ore of antimony," from Arabic al-kuhul "kohl," the fine metallic powder used to darken the eyelids, from kahala "to stain, paint." The al- is the Arabic definite article, "the."

A Dictionary of English Etymology, a 1859 reference work by British etymologist and philologist Hensleigh Wedgwood, had more detail, also describing alcohol as a reduced or purer substance:

Arabic, al kohl, the impalpable powder of antimony, with which the Orientals adorn their eyelids, anything reduced to an impalpable powder, the pure substance of anything separated from the more gross, a pure well-refined spirit, spirit's of wine. To alcoholise, to reduce to an impalpable powder, or to rectify volatile spirit. 

The "body-eating spirit" rumor does come from a real Arabic word. The English word "ghoul" is derived from the Arabic "ghul," which the Online Etymology Dictionary describes as "an evil spirit that robs graves and feeds on corpses." However, it is a completely different word from "kohl," which is the real root of "alcohol."

This isn't the first time we have covered false rumors about words' origins. Check out our guide to discerning fake etymology. 

Sources

"8 Common Words from Arabic." Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/wordplay/words-from-arabic. Accessed 21 Feb. 2024.

"Alcohol | Etymology of Alcohol." Etymonline. https://www.etymonline.com/word/alcohol. Accessed 21 Feb. 2024.

"Criss Angel, Magician | Hotboxin' with Mike Tyson." www.youtube.com, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mPiTKnaOziw. Accessed 21 Feb. 2024.

"Definition of GHOUL." Merriam-Webster. 20 Feb. 2024, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ghoul. Accessed 21 Feb. 2024. 

Emery, David. "The Snopes Guide to Fake Etymology." Snopes, 14 Oct. 2022, https://www.snopes.com//collections/fake-etymology/. Accessed 21 Feb. 2024.

"Ghoul | Etymology of Ghoul." Etymonline. https://www.etymonline.com/word/ghoul. Accessed 21 Feb. 2024.

Sanford, Shannon. "Word Origins the Internet Got Completely Wrong." Snopes, 16 Jan. 2024, https://www.snopes.com//list/word-origins-the-internet-got-wrong/. Accessed 21 Feb. 2024.

Wedgwood, Hensleigh. "A Dictionary of English Etymology: Vol. I." https://www.google.com/books/edition/A_Dictionary_of_English_Etymology/EAmKEAAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=alcohol+etymology+arabic&pg=PA35&printsec=frontcover. Accessed 21 Feb. 2024. 

Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a reporter with experience working in television, international news coverage, fact checking, and creative writing.