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The word アルコール is very similar to the Portuguese alcohol (pronounced alcōl), this seems closer than the English アルコホール. So is the real etymology Portuguese rather than English?

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    well, it could also be French... difficult to say when europe countries use almost the same word everywhere... Wiktionnary says Holland オランダ語: alcohol からの音写。alcoholの語源は、アラビア語のal-khwl(アンチモン硫化物の粉末)またはal-ghawl(精霊)であるとされる – Steven Jun 29 '15 at 4:18
  • It would also probably help to define "real etymology". The furthest back we can trace the world that I know of is Arabic, which is true for all of the Western languages. – virmaior Jun 29 '15 at 4:37
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    With regard to this question, I think the meaning of "real etymology" is the language from which the word was borrowed. – ThomasW Jun 29 '15 at 6:14
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Surveying various resources, here's what I've found:

  • Shogakukan's 国語大辞典 states it's from either Dutch or English alcohol (my local copy: "(オランダ・英alcohol)")
  • Different editions of Daijirin state either Dutch definitively (my local copy: "アルコール [0] 【(オランダ) alcohol】") or possibly English (third edition, online here: "アルコール .【alcohol】" -- implying English if no other language is specified).
  • Daijisen states Dutch or English ("アルコール(〈オランダ〉・〈英〉alcohol)").
  • The fifth edition of the Shinmeikai also states Dutch (my local copy: "(オ alcohol)", with the オ short for オランダ).
  • The Japanese Wikipedia article's section on the etymology of this term states a source from Dutch in the Edo period (1600-1868), and notes that there used to be an /h/ in there much as in Dutch or English, but that historical kana usage and pronunciation changes led this ホ to become just オ, yielding the アルコール pronunciation of today.

So ultimately, the emerging consensus is that アルコール is not from English, but rather from Dutch alcohol, with the /h/ dropping out over time due to normal Japanese historical processes. We know that both the Portuguese and Dutch were very active in trading with Japan prior to and (for the Dutch) during the Edo period. In light of the historical record, English can be ruled out, but Portuguese could still be another possible source.

  • Portuguese were actively trading with Japan in Edo period? Except for early years, what sources claim so? – macraf Oct 26 '15 at 8:13
  • You're right, that was poorly worded -- the Portuguese were mostly kicked out in 1614 when the Tokugawa Shogunate expelled the Jesuits, prompted in part by a sense that the Catholic proselytization efforts could lead to potential threats to their authority. That said, the first Portuguese to visit Japan did so in 1543, with a substantial presence for the next several decades. This period produced numerous other Portuguese-derived loanwords (such as パン, 天婦羅, etc.), and this seems to leave open the possibility of a Portuguese origin for アルコール. – Eiríkr Útlendi Oct 29 '15 at 0:49
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    Possibility yes, but rather small. Wiki for shochu states the distilled alcohol Portuguese introduced was arak and such name was used by Japanese. The use of "alcohol" for "alcoholic beverage" not a chemical or medical term seems quite recent in Europe. And Portuguese missionaries were not particularly renowned for introducing pharmaceuticals to medieval Japan. Are there examples of scientific words borrowed from Portuguese in.Japanese? – macraf Oct 29 '15 at 1:16
  • You've prompted me to do more digging. Thank you for that. :) I found a reprint online of the 1960 Japanese translation of the 1603 Nippo Jisho, and the relevant page here (requires a free registration at openlibrary.org) is notably missing any entry for arukōru. – Eiríkr Útlendi Oct 30 '15 at 4:04
  • That said, it is also missing entries for pan (relevant page), tabako (page), and tenpura (page), which would all probably have had some currency by 1603 -- raising the question of whether this dictionary includes any such borrowings. – Eiríkr Útlendi Oct 30 '15 at 4:04
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大辞林 says

アルコール [0] 【オランダ alcohol】〈「亜爾箇児」と当てた〉

so it seems to be from Dutch (although unlike Portuguese, Dutch does pronounce the H).

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