This year, I spent my New Year’s Eve on a freezing beach in Cornwall with my parents. It wasn’t exactly a night of wild festivities, and the craziest thing that happened was finding a fish washed halfway up the shore. Others, however, were not quite so tame, and I’m sure plenty of people enjoyed a few drinks that evening. Depending on your alcohol of choice, you might have had some spirits.

Those of you drinking spirits were probably too busy celebrating the end of 2016 to be thinking about etymology, but after my parents went to bed early and I was left alone with a dead fish and a drunken man making sand angels, I found myself with plenty of time to contemplate such things. It’s not difficult to hazard a few guesses as to where the name ‘spirits’ comes from, and my first assumption was to do with the fact that drinking spirits tends to cause intoxication, or ‘high spirits’. That doesn’t hold up, though, with things like methylated spirits, which contain methanol to make them unfit for drinking. So, where does the term originate?

Other forms of alcohol have more obvious etymologies; ‘liquor’ comes from the Latin ‘liquere’, meaning ‘to be fluid’. ‘Booze’ comes from a Middle Dutch word, ‘būsen’, meaning to drink excessively. Both of these terms refer solely to alcoholic drinks, and it makes sense that their etymologies would derive so directly from this. If you look at the origins of the word ‘spirits’ outside of the context of alcohol, it comes from the Latin ‘spirare’, meaning to breathe, and giving rise to the notion of ghosts. The paranormal appears to be far removed from vodka shots, but according to some spiritualists, the two are more connected than you might think.

‘liquor’ comes from the Latin ‘liquere’, meaning ‘to be fluid’. ‘Booze’ comes from a Middle Dutch word, ‘būsen’, meaning to drink excessively

Ever done something while under the influence that you regret horribly the next morning? Don’t worry – if you subscribe to this explanation for the origins of ‘spirits’, then it’s not you, but some malevolent ghosts to blame for your actions. If we follow this logic, which is still popular among some believers in the paranormal today, drinking distilled alcohol lowers your body’s natural barriers against possession, allowing any nearby spirits to take control of your body and cause the state we usually identify as drunkenness. This, in turn, is said to have led to the drinks responsible being referred to as ‘spirits’. Ghosts may be a handy excuse for any questionable behaviour, but it’s also quite a niche belief, and certainly not popular enough to be the reason behind the name.

Angie Garrett

At the other end of the scale is a theory which combines ghosts with a bit of science. A liquid like water has very high surface tension, which gives the appearance of a skin forming on the top of the water. Spirits, on the other hand, have a much lower surface tension, which means they don’t give the appearance of having a film, and look a lot more shimmery. One theory suggests that this shimmering was once considered ghostly, meaning that the appearance of the liquid itself was what led to the name ‘spirits’ linking these alcohols to the paranormal.

The widely accepted explanation, however, derives from not what spirits look like, but how they’re made. The crucial thing about spirits is that they’re all forms of distilled alcohol, made by heating a liquid and then collecting and condensing the vapour created. This process is actually very similar to the method Middle Eastern alchemists once used while attempting to create medical elixirs, and in which the vapour given off would be called the spirit of the material being heated. The similarity of the processes meant that the alcoholic results of distillation took on the name of ‘spirits’, too, and it stuck. The word ‘alcohol’ actually derives in almost the same way from an Arabic term for kohl and other powders that could be created through the process of sublimation (turning something directly from a solid to a gas, missing out the liquid stage); ‘al-kuhl’, meaning ‘the kohl’, came to refer to any distilled alcohol sometime in the 1600s.

So maybe it’s not as exciting as ghostly possession or paranormal drinks, but at least you can head into Refreshers’ Week knowing that you’re (sort of) engaging in alchemy. And, if it comes to it, that cringeworthy drunken text? Blame it on the ghosts

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