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Presumably the English knew that there existed a compound common to fermented or distilled liquids that caused intoxication, but before they had the word alcohol, what did they call this chemical compound?

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migrated from history.stackexchange.com Sep 7 '13 at 22:34

This question came from our site for historians and history buffs.

It appears that you're asking about the scientific term, not the name for "booze", although I'm not quite sure. I tried to address both in my answer. – Vector Sep 7 '13 at 5:00

Here is an interesting article on the etymology of alcohol. It claims that in Middle English, they callled intoxicants licur (which we know as liquor) - which means, well, liquid - and bouse (which we know as booze), which was the word for "beer", and applied in the general to drink, especially in verb form (bousen).

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It is a very interesting article, a pity you didn't post more details in your answer. – Mari-Lou A Sep 8 '13 at 7:34


An alcoholic beverage, especially distilled liquor; Also a scientific term: An alcohol solution of an essential or volatile substance.

Origin: 1200–50; Middle English (noun) < Latin spīritus orig., a breathing, equivalent to spīri-, combining form representing spīrāre to breathe + -tus suffix of v. action

Ether is another term to consider, since the language of your question seems to lean in the scienfitic direction:

An organic compound in which two hydrocarbon groups are linked by an oxygen atom, having the general structure ROR', where R and R' are the two hydrocarbon groups. At room temperature, ethers are pleasant-smelling liquids resembling alcohols but less dense and less soluble in water.

Origin: 1350–1400; Middle English < Latin aethēr the upper air, pure air, ether < Greek aithḗr, akin to aíthein to glow, burn, Old English ād funeral pyre, Latin aestus heat

In older scientific literature, ether had many different meanings and usages. See: The Composition and Structure of Ether:

The preparation of alcohol (spirit of wine, vinic alcohol, ethanol, ethyl alcohol) by fermentation dates to antiquity. Closely related to alcohol -- both through history and chemistry -- is ether (ethyl ether, diethyl ether) a compound obtained from alcohol by the action of oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid).

Or (if you're talking about liquor):


liquor; alcohol.

which is even earlier:

Origin:before 900; Middle English drinken, Old English drincan; cognate with Dutch drinken, German trinken, Gothic drinkan, Old Norse drekka

Alcohol is a later addition to the language:


Origin: 1535–45; < Neo-Latin < Medieval Latin < Arabic al-ku?l the powdered antimony, the distillate

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Superficially this answer looks good, lots of quotes and references. However, all quotes but one are from an online dictionary, and the one that isn't refers to ether which the question is not about. Also, too much blue again. +1 for effort -1 for criticism net 0. – Eugene Seidel Sep 7 '13 at 7:19
I suggest you remove the bit about ether. Anyone with basic knowledge in organic chemistry would tell you that it is not alcohol. Yes they are related and have almost similar structures, but they are completely distinct classes of compounds. – Louis Rhys Sep 8 '13 at 6:21
@EugeneSeidel - it is not an online dictionary. It is a dictionary online. Check out references on the pages... And please read carefully my answer and references - they do address the question. (I don't see any blue at all...) – Vector Sep 8 '13 at 22:09
@LouisRhys - not sure how widespread the knowledge of organic chemistry was in 15th/16th century England, the period in question. Read carefully my answer and references. – Vector Sep 8 '13 at 22:10
good point.. They didn't know about organic chemistry, which means that they wouldn't know that ether had a "general structure ROR'", related to alcohol. It's more reason to disassociate alcohol and ether. – Louis Rhys Sep 9 '13 at 1:47

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