AskDefine | Define alcohol

Dictionary Definition



1 a liquor or brew containing alcohol as the active agent; "alcohol (or drink) ruined him" [syn: alcoholic beverage, intoxicant, inebriant]
2 any of a series of volatile hydroxyl compounds that are made from hydrocarbons by distillation

User Contributed Dictionary



From or alcohol (modern French alcool) < sc=Arab.


  • a UK /ˈælkəhɒl/, /"

Extensive Definition

In chemistry, an alcohol is any organic compound in which a hydroxyl group (-OH) is bound to a carbon atom of an alkyl or substituted alkyl group. The general formula for a simple acyclic alcohol is CnH2n+1OH.
The word alcohol was introduced into the English language circa 1543 from the , "al-ġuḥl". In layman's terms, it usually refers to ethanol, also known as grain alcohol or (older) spirits of wine, or to any alcoholic beverage. Ethanol is a colorless, volatile liquid with a mild odor which can be obtained by the fermentation of sugars. (Industrially, it is more commonly obtained by ethylene hydration—the reaction of ethylene with water in the presence of phosphoric acid.) Ethanol is the most widely used depressant in the world, and has been for thousands of years. This sense underlies the term alcoholism (addiction to alcohol).
Other alcohols are usually described with a clarifying adjective, as in isopropyl alcohol (propan-2-ol) or wood alcohol (methyl alcohol, or methanol). The suffix -ol appears in the "official" IUPAC chemical name of all alcohols.
There are three major subsets of alcohols: primary (1°), secondary (2°) and tertiary (3°), based upon the number of carbon atoms the C-OH group's carbon (shown in red) is bonded to. Ethanol is a simple 'primary' alcohol. The simplest secondary alcohol is isopropyl alcohol (propan-2-ol), and a simple tertiary alcohol is tert-butyl alcohol (2-methylpropan-2-ol).
The phenols with parent compound phenol have a hydroxyl group (attached to a benzene ring) just like alcohols, but differ sufficiently in properties as to warrant a separate treatment.
Carbohydrates (sugars) and sugar alcohols are an important class of compounds containing multiple alcohol functional groups. For example, sucrose (common sugar) contains eight hydroxyl groups per molecule and sorbitol has six. Most of the attributes of these polyols, from nomenclature, to occurrence, use and toxicity, are sufficiently different from simple aliphatic alcohols as to require a separate treatment.

Simple alcohols

The simplest and most commonly used alcohols are methanol and ethanol. Methanol was formerly obtained by the distillation of wood and called "wood alcohol." It is now a cheap commodity, the chemical product of carbon monoxide reacting with hydrogen under high pressure. Methanol is intoxicating but not directly poisonous. It is toxic by its breakdown (toxication) by the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase in the liver by forming formic acid and formaldehyde which cause permanent blindness by destruction of the optic nerve.
Apart from its familiar role in alcoholic beverages, ethanol is also used as a highly controlled industrial solvent and raw material. To avoid the high taxes on ethanol for consumption, additives are added to make it unpalatable (such as denatonium benzoate—"Bitrex") or poisonous (such as methanol). Ethanol in this form is known generally as denatured alcohol; when methanol is used, it may be referred to as methylated spirits ("Meths") or "surgical spirits".
Two other alcohols whose uses are relatively widespread (though not so much as those of methanol and ethanol) are propanol and butanol. Like ethanol, they can be produced by fermentation processes. (However, the fermenting agent is a bacterium, Clostridium acetobutylicum, that feeds on cellulose, not sugars like the Saccharomyces yeast that produces ethanol.)


Systematic names

In the IUPAC system, the name of the alkane chain loses the terminal "e" and adds "ol", e.g. "methanol" and "ethanol". When necessary, the position of the hydroxyl group is indicated by a number between the alkane name and the "ol": propan-1-ol for CH3CH2CH2OH, propan-2-ol for CH3CH(OH)CH3. Sometimes, the position number is written before the IUPAC name: 1-propanol and 2-propanol. If a higher priority group is present (such as an aldehyde, ketone or carboxylic acid), then it is necessary to use the prefix "hydroxy",
Other alcohols are substantially more poisonous than ethanol, partly because they take much longer to be metabolized, and often their metabolism produces even more toxic substances. Methanol, or wood alcohol, for instance, is oxidized by alcohol dehydrogenase enzymes in the liver to the poisonous formaldehyde, which can cause blindness or death.
An effective treatment to prevent formaldehyde toxicity after methanol ingestion is to administer ethanol. Alcohol dehydrogenase has a higher affinity for ethanol, thus preventing methanol from binding and acting as a substrate. Any remaining methanol will then have time to be excreted through the kidneys. Remaining formaldehyde will be converted to formic acid and excreted.



  • The World in So Many Words
alcohol in Arabic: كحول
alcohol in Asturian: Alcohol
alcohol in Belarusian (Tarashkevitsa): Сьпірт
alcohol in Bosnian: Alkohol
alcohol in Bulgarian: Алкохол
alcohol in Catalan: Alcohol
alcohol in Czech: Alkoholy
alcohol in Welsh: Alcohol
alcohol in Danish: Alkohol (stofklasse)
alcohol in German: Alkohole
alcohol in Estonian: Alkoholid
alcohol in Spanish: Alcohol
alcohol in Esperanto: Alkoholo
alcohol in Persian: الکل
alcohol in Faroese: Alkohol
alcohol in French: Alcool (chimie)
alcohol in Scottish Gaelic: Alcol
alcohol in Galician: Alcohol
alcohol in Korean: 알코올
alcohol in Croatian: Alkoholi
alcohol in Ido: Alkoholo
alcohol in Indonesian: Alkohol
alcohol in Icelandic: Alkóhól
alcohol in Italian: Alcoli
alcohol in Hebrew: כוהל
alcohol in Javanese: Alkohol
alcohol in Kurdish: Alkol
alcohol in Latin: Alcohol
alcohol in Latvian: Spirti
alcohol in Lithuanian: Alkoholis
alcohol in Hungarian: Alkoholok
alcohol in Macedonian: Алкохол
alcohol in Malayalam: ചാരായം (രസതന്ത്രം)
alcohol in Malay (macrolanguage): Alkohol
alcohol in Dutch: Alcohol (stofklasse)
alcohol in Japanese: アルコール
alcohol in Norwegian: Alkoholer
alcohol in Norwegian Nynorsk: Alkohol
alcohol in Occitan (post 1500): Alcòl
alcohol in Polish: Alkohole
alcohol in Portuguese: Álcool
alcohol in Romanian: Alcooli
alcohol in Russian: Спирты
alcohol in Sicilian: Alcool
alcohol in Simple English: Alcohol
alcohol in Slovak: Alkohol (hydroxyderivát)
alcohol in Slovenian: Alkohol
alcohol in Serbian: Алкохол
alcohol in Sundanese: Alkohol
alcohol in Finnish: Alkoholi
alcohol in Swedish: Alkoholer
alcohol in Thai: แอลกอฮอล์
alcohol in Vietnamese: Rượu (hoá học)
alcohol in Cheyenne: Manestôtse
alcohol in Turkish: Alkol
alcohol in Ukrainian: Спирти
alcohol in Vlaams: Alcool
alcohol in Yiddish: אלקאהאל
alcohol in Chinese: 醇

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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