Dictionary of Word Origins

When I was writing The Cartoon Guide to Recreational Drugs I scoured the local libraries and bookstores looking for useful and interesting historical works. Dictionary of Word Origins is one of my sources.

The parts I generally took notes from were either about the drugs themselves or the prohibition of drugs. You’ll find the information garnered from these books throughout the Prohibition Politics section of this site. It will also have informed some of my own postings stored in the older Prohibition Politics archive.

If you find this information useful, you will want to search out the books themselves to read the text in context. All of the books here are at least moderately interesting.


John Ayto’s “History of More Than 8,000 English-Language Words” is a fascinating read, including a bit of history within the etymologies.

alcohol [16] Originally, alcohol was a powder, not a liquid. The word comes from Arabic al-kuhul, literally ‘the kohl’—that is, powdered antimony used as a cosmetic for darkening the eyelids. This was borrowed into English via French or medieval Latin, and retained this ‘powder’ meaning for some centuries (for instance, ‘They put between the eyelids and the eye a certain black powder made of a mineral brought from the kingdom of Fez, and called Alcohol,’ George Sandys, Travels 1615). But a change was rapidly taking place: from specifically ‘antimony,’ alcohol came to mean any substance obtained by sublimation, and hence ‘quintessence.’ Alcohol of wine was thus the ‘quintessence of wine,’ produced by distillaton or rectification, and by the middle of the 18th century alcohol was being used on its own for the intoxicating ingredient in strong liquor. The more precise chemical definition (a compound with a hydroxyl group bound to a hydrocarbon group) developed in the 19th century.


ale [OE] Old English ealu ‘ale’ goes back to a Germanic root *aluth-, which also produced Old Norse öl (Scandinavian languages still use ale-related words, whereas other Germanic languages now only use beer-related words; English is the only one to retain both). Going beyond Germanic in time takes us back to the word’s ulimate Indo-European source, a base meaning ‘bitter’ which is also represented in alum and aluminum. Ale and beer seem to have been virtually synonymous to the Anglo-Saxons; various distinctions in usage have developed over the centuries, such as that ale is made without hops, and is heavier (or some would say lighter) than beer, but most of the differences have depended on local usage.

The word bridal is intimately connected with ale. Nowadays used as an adjective, and therefore subconscously associated with other adjectives ending in -al, in Old English it was a noun, literally ‘bride ale,’ that is, a beer-drinking session to celebrate a marriage.

cocoa [18] Like chocolate, cocoa came to English from the Nahuatl language of the Aztec people. Their cacahuatl meant ‘beans of the cocoa tree.’ Its first element was borrowed into Spanish as cacao. This was adopted by English in the 16th century, and remained the standard form until the 18th century, when it was modified to cocoa. Originally it was pronounced with three syllables (/ko-ko-a/), but confusion with the coco of coconut (which was also sometimes spelled cocoa) led to the current two-syllable pronunciation.

hemp [OE] Hemp is ultimately the same word as cannabis (as, bizarrely, is canvas, which was originally made from hemp). Both go back to a common ancestor which produced Persian kanab, Russian konóplya, Greek kánnabis (source of English cannabis), and a prehistoric Germanic *khanipiz or *khanapiz. From the latter are descended German hanf, Dutch hennep, Swedish hampa, Danish hamp, and English hemp.


hero [14] … Heroin [19] comes from German heroin, said to have been coined from the delusions of heroism which afflict those who take the drug.


Laudanum [16] Laudanum, the name of a tincture of opium, a forerunner of modern heroin and crack, was coined by the 16th-century Swiss physician Paracelsus. He used it for a medicine of his own devising which according to the prescription he gave out contained all sorts of expensive ingredients such as gold leaf and pearls. It was generally believed, however, that the reason for the medicine’s effectiveness was a generous measure of opium in the mixture, and so in due course laudanum came to have its current use. It is not known where Paracelsus got the name from, but he could well have based it on Latin lādanum ‘resin,’ which came from Greek lādanum, a derivative of ledon, ‘mastic.’

Opium [14] Etymologically, opium means ‘little juice.’ It comes via Latin from Greek ópion ‘poppy juice,’ which originated as a diminutive form of opós ‘juice.’ This in turn may be related to Persian āb ‘water.’ The derivative opiate [16] comes via medieval Latin opiātus.