Drunk Catholic History: Spirits and the Holy Spirit

Ever wonder why we call alcohol “spirits”? After all, “spirit” can refer to:
  • the human soul, either in whole or in part;
  • an intelligent creature with no material body (angels and demons, or if you are getting fanciful, sprites, nymphs, and so forth);
  • the Third Person in the Holy Trinity;
  • courage or gumption;
  • a defining quality, such as “the spirit of a place.”
And when spirit is associated with anything physical, it is usually not something wet like alcohol but something dry. Indeed, “spirit” is derived from the Latin spiritus (meaning breath, air, or gentle wind), and in the early Church it was used to translate the Greek pneuma and the Hebrew ruah, both of which also mean wind, breath, or spirit.

How, then, did air become hooch? One theory popular on the Internet is that “alcohol” comes from the Arabic al-kuhl, a “body-eating spirit.” The problem is that al-kuḥl actually means “eye cosmetic,” which was once made in a way that loosely resembled the distillation of alcohol.[i]

In the English language the first instances of “spirit” were derived from passages in the Vulgate translation of the Bible mentioning spiritus and were therefore in conformity with biblical usage. “Spirit,” in other words, had a largely spiritual meaning, something in contradistinction to worldliness, materiality, literalness, etc. Tied to this usage were other qualities of the soul, such as courage, mental vigor, or liveliness.
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Anonymous said...

This randomly had me think of the following:

I was at mass recently and the priest ended his homily by saying, "In the name of the father and the son and the holy ghost." Does this mean that when he says the Lord be with you, I should respond, "And with your ghost?"

Badger Catholic said...


Holy Ghost is a German thing, sometimes I've heard trads say that's the proper way, but clearly Ghost = Geist. In English, Spirit is clearly the better translation.