I was wondering if there is any correlation between the way alcohol burns and a common view of a spirit?

Alcohol burns with a wavering blue flame that looks almost ethereal.

Burning alcohol

Spirits are often pictured as blue and wavering (think of the will-o'-the-wisps in brave).

enter image description here

Coincidence? To be clear: I am asking if alcohol is called spirits partially due to this imagery, not about whether spirit's images are based of burning alcohol.

  • Will-o-the-wisps may be a special case however, given that they are an anthropomorphisation (if that's the right word) of a natural phenomenon which involves either a flame or 'pre-combustion halos' known as cold flames. Even if the scientific explanations are still disputed to some extent, folklore explains them as ghostly flames and artistic depictions deliberately render them flame-like. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – Spagirl
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 10:20
  • @Spagirl Very true! However many other spirits are dipicted in a similiar manner.
    – Mirte
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 12:01
  • 1
    Huh, and I always thought it was because it put you in in good spirits
    – DasBeasto
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 14:06
  • ever occured to you that it could be the other way around, depictions maybe getting the ideas from real stuff?
    – n611x007
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 21:34

5 Answers 5


It is from the ancient alchemy notion of "volatile substance". The vapor given off and collected during an alchemical process (as with distillation of alcohol) was called a spirit of the original material:

  • From late 14c. in alchemy as "volatile substance; distillate;" from c. 1500 as "substance capable of uniting the fixed and the volatile elements of the philosopher's stone." Hence spirits "volatile substance;" sense narrowed to "strong alcoholic liquor" by 1670s.


  • 13
    Note that the same thing has happened in German. "Geist" means "Spirit" in the sense of "Holy Spirit" (der Heiliger Geist) and "alcohol" (For example, Himbeergeist is "raspberry brandy") Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 14:16
  • 12
    Three martinis and you're visited by poltergeists.
    – Airymouse
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 14:37
  • 7
    @DavidRicherby - the spirit, the immaterial essence coming from the distilled material.
    – user66974
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 15:26
  • 21
    Spirit is from the Latin for "breath", i.e., not so much the immaterial essence of a thing as the actual vapors. Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 20:47
  • 4
    @LeeDanielCrocker Which in turn is a reflection of the ancient belief that one's breath and one's soul are the same thing. A newborn's first breath is the spirit entering the body; a dying person's death rattle is the spirit leaving the body. Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 16:38

The root of the word spirit is the Latin spirare - to breathe. It then becomes synonymous with "life" and "living" - including in the religious sense - the Holy Spirit.

Then of great relevance to the development of the word as we use it in connection with substances is what happens, evidently, from the 14th century.

OED - sense 16 -

a. One or other of certain subtle highly-refined substances or fluids (distinguished as natural, animal, and vital) formerly supposed to permeate the blood and chief organs of the body. In later use only pl.

▸a1387 J. Trevisa tr. R. Higden Polychron. (St. John's Cambr.) (1865) I. 53 For þe son beme..draweþ oute þe humours,..and by drawing oute of spirites makeþ hem coward of herte.

c1400 Lanfranc's Cirurg. 26 Þe toþer arterie..haþ two cootis, bi cause þat oon myȝt not aȝenstonde þe strenkþe of þe spiritis.

c1400 Lanfranc's Cirurg. 162 Of þis clene blood þe spirit is engendrid; which spirit is..more sutil þan ony bodi.

1477 T. Norton Ordinall of Alchimy v, in E. Ashmole Theatrum Chem. Britannicum (1652) 82 The Spirit Vitall in the Hert doth dwell, The Spirit Naturall..in the Liver.., But Spirit Animall dwelleth in the Braine.

1541 T. Elyot Castel of Helthe (new ed.) 12 b, Spirite is an ayry substance subtyll, styrynge the powers of the body to perfourme theyr operations.

There are further entries on this down to the 19th century. However from the 17th century the notion of spirits as a refined substance generally seems to become accepted sense 21 -

a. A liquid of the nature of an essence or extract from some substance, esp. one obtained by distillation; a solution in alcohol of some essential or volatile principle.

1612 B. Jonson Alchemist ii. vi. sig. F2, H'is busie with his spirits, but we'll vpon him.

1651 J. French Art Distillation v. 139 Dissolve any sulphurous..metall..in Aqua fortis, or any other acid Spirit.

1728 E. Chambers Cycl. (at cited word), The Chymists are said to draw a Spirit from Sulphur, Salt and other Bodies, when they extract the Essence, or the subtilest Part thereof, by Distillation or otherwise.

1813 H. Davy Elements Agric. Chem. (1814) 136 All the common spirits may, I find, be deprived of their peculiar flavour by repeatedly digesting them with..charcoal and quicklime.

It would seem therefore that the etymological route is from spirare - (to breathe), to spirit - meaning "alive", to substances supposed to permeate the blood - and finally to refined materials like alcohol, turpentine etc.

Edit 16.22hrsGMT 12 Jan 17.

The Hebrew information (per @David) is interesting. Spiro (spiravi, spiratus, spirare) according to my Latin dictionary Virgil used it in idioms to mean variously of strong odour; be propitious; to breathe, blow, be exhaled, burst forth, rage, figuratively to be inspired, have poetic inspiration and Horace (born 65BC) to breathe, live, be alive - videtur Laeli mens spirare etiam in scriptis: spirat adhuc amor puellae

It doesn't say anything about "spirit" in the sense of the non-corporeal.

Another (English - Latin) dictionary indicates the word for soul was animus (m) and ghost - anima (f). So it would appear that the linkage between breath(e) and spirit does not emerge from Latin, at least not classical Latin. Might be interesting to look at how medieval Latin dealt with it (or to hear from a modern Italian speaker such as @Mari-Lou A)

Senses 6 & 7 of the OED re the Christian ideas; examples do not start to appear in the dictionary until the later middle ages e.g 14th century (and a Chaucer concordance indicates his extensive use of the Christian spirit) suggesting it may have been the non-availability of Judeo-Christian literature in English prior to the fourteenth century (as one commenter has noted) that may explain the lack of examples prior to that time.

  • 2
    Didn't medieval alchemists use Latin? It seems plausible that spiritus may have been used in Latin to mean the "breath" (vapor) of a substance, and was then re-translated into English as "spirit" (adding another meaning to a word that had been mutated already in its passage through Old French). I can't defend that theory though
    – trent
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 20:48
  • 2
    Also, in Hebrew, ruach is the word for "wind", "breath", and "spirit". e.g. in Genesis "a wind moved over the waters" (v1:2) and God breathed life into Adam's nostrils (v2:7) it's the same word. I believe this connection between "breath" and "spirit" predates any Judeo-Christian influence on the Latin language, but I'm not 100% certain.
    – David
    Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 14:42
  • @David Very interesting comment. See my extensive edit to my earlier answer.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 16:33

Just to add to Josh's (correct) answer; it appears that the use of the word "spirit" in connection with distillation fist came about in the Middle East. Wikipedia states:

The term "spirit" in reference to alcohol stems from Middle Eastern alchemy. These alchemists were more concerned with medical elixirs than with transmuting lead into gold. The vapor given off and collected during an alchemical process (as with distillation of alcohol) was called a spirit of the original material.

  • 7
    So spirit as in "essence", almost "soul", rather than linking to any depiction of a spirit. However, the imagery used for an ethereal spirit may well be based on how alcohol burns (which is what the question hopes is not the case).
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 9:35
  • 3
    And it was called a spirit of the original material because it was felt the vapor found by distillation contained the essence or nature of the material it was distilled from. In much the same way that living things were thought to be alive because of a vital fluid or that humans were thought to have a spiritual essence because of their souls. Both characteristics were called spirit, and we still use the word to characterize an essence of something.
    – deadrat
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 9:38
  • @deadrat Exactly - perhaps I should have been a bit more expansive in my answer; I assumed that would be a given but, on reading it again, it very clearly isn't so thanks for the clarification.
    – Spratty
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 9:47

No: because alcohol is not called spirits. :-)

Spirits, in the alcoholic sense, refers specifically to a particular type of drink, one manufactured by a process involving distillation, such as whisky or gin.

Most alcoholic drink (by volume) is not produced in that way.

Beer, for instance, is brewed (traditionally from hops), not distilled. And beer (or, originally, mead) has historically represented, by volume, far and away the largest percentage of alcohol consumed in the English-speaking world.

Wine, for instance, is fermented in a fermentation process (traditionally based upon grapes). Likewise cider.

So there is no logical (or etymological) reason to suppose that the term spirits has ever referred to alcohol in general. It refers to one type of alcohol, and that type is not even the most common form by volume.

Beer represents a form of alcohol which will not even ignite. Likewise, wine is not flammable. The types of alcohol which will ignite include a wide range of industrial alcohols, many of which are actually poisonous to humans, such as (speaking of spirits) methylated spirits ("meths").

And in a historical context, people did not traditionally ignite spirits.

Whisky is quite expensive, even today: in historical periods in England, most people could not have afforded to set light to their drink! (Nor would want to.) So there is actually no reason to suppose that some forms of alcohol are termed spirits because our Victorian forebears enjoyed watching their drink go up in flames!

Nice idea. But burning your whisky was probably never very popular in Scotland!

  • 2
    While interesting, this isn't an answer and would really work better as a comment on the original question.
    – trent
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 22:59
  • 1
    @trentcl The question was "I was wondering if there is any correlation between the way alcohol burns and a common view of a spirit?" Seems to me "no" is an answer, which the rest of the post supports with fact and reason.
    – bof
    Commented Jan 14, 2017 at 7:15
  • 1
    @bof: The point I was struggling to make is that most forms of alcohol which are drinkable, i.e. the non-poisonous ones, are not flammable. Therefore very few people would ever see alcohol in flames, probably too few to support the notion that there could be an etymological link.
    – Ed999
    Commented Jan 14, 2017 at 11:12
  • 1
    @Ed999 You didn't answer the question that was asked. You went on a long tangent about different ways of producing alcohol, which is off-topic on this SE. You said nothing about the etymological connection between two different senses of "spirit", which is what the question was about.
    – trent
    Commented Jan 14, 2017 at 14:26
  • 2
    @trentcl: Actually, the o/p didn't even mention the e-word (etymological). The question is about the image of an allegedly alcohol-based flame. But I didn't need to repeat the points which had already been made, about the etymological roots of the term 'spirits'. No one, however, had distinguished the meaning of 'spirits' from that of 'alcohol' (the o/p says, expressly, the image is of 'alcohol'), and no one had expressed the relevent point that most forms of alcohol are not flammable (of those types which we drink). "Is alcohol called spirits...?" No, it isn't. The terms aren't synonyms.
    – Ed999
    Commented Jan 14, 2017 at 21:37

You are looking for an etymological link between the word 'spirit', as in drinkable 'spirit', and the word 'spirit', as in "soulish" 'spirit'.

My theory is that there is a link, and that that link concerns the fact that strong alcoholic drinks bring on the unholy spirit/s, while the weaker ones doesn't. Thus, the latter can, therefore, be said to be of the holy spirit.

The 5th century, BC, Greek Philosopher, Euenos, suggested that wine should be diluted to not cause "grief, or madness". He said that to make wine sound, it should be mixed with water.

The wine that Jesus miraculously made at the wedding at Cana was most likely a mixture of a more recent, sweeter, wine and water. It had less alcohol and tasted better than the host's wine mixture, which was stronger, and less tasting. The reason it was stronger and less tasting was because all of the sugar in the wine had been converted to alcohol.

Ref: "Difficult Passages in the Epistles: Is New Testament 'Wine' the Same as Today's Wine?": R.H. Stein

  • 3
    Please register one of your accounts and then follow the Help on joining them together. With a registered account you can edit your own posts.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Oct 16, 2017 at 9:53
  • An answer should answer the question as an expert would, with explanation, context, and any supporting facts that are necessary to show that it is right. Personal opinions, speculation, anecdotes, and general discussion are welcome in English Language & Usage Chat.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Oct 16, 2017 at 17:04

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.