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PIE word
A simple setup for distillation using an alembic. The substance to be distilled (sense 1.3) is placed in the retort on the left and heated. The substance vaporizes and travels down the long neck of the retort into the flask on the right, where it condenses back into a liquid as the flask is being cooled with water from a tap.

From Late Middle English distillen (to fall, flow, or shed in drops, drop, trickle; to shed drops; to fill (the eyes) with tears; (alchemy, medicine) to subject (something) to distillation; to obtain (something) using distillation; to distil; to condense or vaporize; (figuratively) to give (good fortune) to; to say (slanderous words)) [and other forms],[1] from Old French distiller (modern French distiller (to distil)), and from its etymon Latin distīllāre, a variant of Latin dēstīllāre, the present active infinitive of dēstīllō (to drip or trickle down; to distil), from dē- (prefix meaning ‘down, down from, down to’) + stīllō (to drip, drop, trickle; to distil) (from stīlla (drop of liquid; (figuratively) small quantity), probably a diminutive of stīria (ice drop; icicle), from Proto-Indo-European *ster- (stiff)).[2]



distil (third-person singular simple present distils, present participle distilling, simple past and past participle distilled) (British spelling)

  1. (transitive)
    1. To exude (a liquid) in small drops; also, to give off (a vapour) which condenses in small drops.
      Firs distil resin.
      • 1601, C[aius] Plinius Secundus [i.e., Pliny the Elder], “[Book XXVII.] Of Stinking Horehound: Of Mille-graine, or Oke of Ierusalem: Of Brabyla, Bryon, Bupleuros, Catanance: Of Calla, Circæa, and Cirsium: Of Cratægonon and Thelygonum: Of Crocodilium and Cynosorchis: Of Chrysolachanon, Cucubalon, and Conserva..”, in Philemon Holland, transl., The Historie of the VVorld. Commonly Called, The Natvrall Historie of C. Plinivs Secvndus. [], 2nd tome, London: [] Adam Islip, published 1635, OCLC 1180792622, page 280:
        [I]t [Silene] eaſeth the head-ach, if togither vvith oile of roſes it be diſtilled upon the head by vvay of embrochation.
      • 1667, John Milton, “Book V”, in Paradise Lost. [], London: [] [Samuel Simmons], [], OCLC 228722708; republished as Paradise Lost in Ten Books: [], London: Basil Montagu Pickering [], 1873, OCLC 230729554, lines 54–57:
        [B]eſide it [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] ſtood / One ſhap'd & wing'd like one of thoſe from Heav'n / By us oft ſeen; his dewie locks diſtill'd / Ambroſia; []
      • 1692, John Ray, “Upon a Review of the Precedent Discourse, Some Things Thought Fit to be Added and Amended”, in Miscellaneous Discourses Concerning the Dissolution and Changes of the World. [], London: [] Samuel Smith, [], OCLC 1170228407, pages 250–251:
        [page 250] [] Trees do deſtil VVater a pace when Clouds or Miſts hang about them; [] [page 251] Beſides that in hot Regions Trees may in the nigh time deſtil VVater, though the Air be clear, and there be no Miſt about them, []
      • 1912, J[ean-]Henri Fabre, “The Garden Spiders: Pairing and Hunting”, in Alexander Teixeira de Mattos, transl., The Life of the Spider, New York, N.Y.: Blue Ribbon Books, OCLC 2130389, page 315:
        Animals are a little like ourselves: they excel in an art only on condition of specializing in it. The Epeira, who, being omnivorous, is obliged to generalize, abandons scientific methods and makes up for this by distilling a poison capable of producing torpor and even death, no matter what the point attacked.
    2. (by extension, figuratively) To impart (information, etc.) in small quantities; to infuse.
      • 1630, Robert Sanderson, “[Ad Populum.] The First Sermon. At the Assises at Lincoln in the Year 1630. at the Request of Sir Daniel Deligne Knight, then High-Sheriff of that County.”, in XXXIV Sermons. [], 5th edition, London: [] [A. Clark] for A. Seil, and are to be sold by G. Sawbridge, [], published 1671, OCLC 1227554849, paragraph 5, page 253:
        But of all other men our Solomon could leaſt be ignorant of this truth. Not only for that reaſon, becauſe God had filled his heart vvith a large meaſure of vviſdom beyond other men: but even for this reaſon alſo: that being born of vviſe and godly Parents, and born to a Kingdom too, [] he had this truth (conſidering the great uſefulneſs of it to him in the vvhole time of his future Government) early diſtilled into him by both his Parents, and vvas ſeaſoned thereinto from his childhood in his education.
      • 1881, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Rose Mary”, in Ballads and Sonnets, London: Ellis and White, [], OCLC 946729536, part III, stanza 3, page 49:
        She felt the slackening frost distil / Through her blood the last ooze dull and chill: / Her lids were dry and her lips were still.
    3. To heat (a substance, usually a liquid) so that a vapour is produced, and then to cool the vapour so that it condenses back into a liquid, either to purify the original substance or to obtain one of its components; to subject to distillation.
    4. Followed by off or out: to expel (a volatile substance) from something by distillation.
    5. (also figuratively)
      1. To extract the essence of (something) by, or as if by, distillation; to concentrate, to purify.
        • c. 1595–1596 (date written), William Shakespeare, A Midsommer Nights Dreame. [] (First Quarto), London: [] [Richard Bradock] for Thomas Fisher, [], published 1600, OCLC 1041029189, [Act I, scene i]:
          But earthlyer happy is the roſe diſtild, / Then that, vvhich, vvithering on the virgin thorne, / Grovves, liues, and dies, in ſingle bleſſedneſſe.
        • 1609, William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 5”, in Shake-speares Sonnets. [][1], London: By G[eorge] Eld for T[homas] T[horpe] and are to be sold by William Aspley, OCLC 216596634:
          But flovvers diſtil'd though they vvith vvinter meete, / Leeſe but their ſhow, their ſubſtance ſtill liues ſvveet.
        • [1633], George Herbert, “Praise”, in [Nicholas Ferrar], editor, The Temple: Sacred Poems, and Private Ejaculations, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire: [] Thomas Buck and Roger Daniel; and are to be sold by Francis Green, [], OCLC 1048966979; reprinted London: Elliot Stock, [], 1885, OCLC 54151361, page 53:
          An herb deſtill'd, and drunk, may dvvell next doore, / On the ſame floore, / To a brave ſoul: Exalt the poore, / They can do more.
        • 1750 September 21, Samuel Johnson, “No. [51]. Monday, September 10. 1750 [Julian calendar].”, in The Rambler, volume II, Edinburgh: [[] Sands, Murray, and Cochran]; sold by W. Gordon, C. Wright, J. Yair, [], published 1750, OCLC 702676921, page 195:
          [T]he ladies [] begged me to excuſe ſome large ſieves of leaves and flowers that covered two thirds of the floor; for they intended to diſtil them when they were dry, and they had no other room that ſo conveniently received the riſing ſun.
        • 1914, Louis Joseph Vance, “Anarchy”, in Nobody, New York, N.Y.: George H[enry] Doran Company, published 1915, OCLC 40817384, pages 18–19:
          Little disappointed, then, she turned attention to "Chat of the Social World," gossip which exercised potent fascination upon the girl's intelligence. She devoured with more avidity than she had her food those pretentiously phrased chronicles of the snobocracy— [] distilling therefrom an acid envy that robbed her napoleon of all its savour.
      2. To transform a thing (into something else) by distillation.
        • a. 1638 (date written), Benjamin Jonson [i.e., Ben Jonson], “The Sad Shepherd: Or, A Tale of Robin-Hood”, in The Workes of Benjamin Jonson. The Second Volume. [] (Second Folio), London: [] Richard Meighen, published 1640, OCLC 51546498, Act I, scene vi, page 138:
          Ile grovv to your embraces, till tvvo ſoules / Diſtilled into kiſſes, through our lips / Doe make one ſpirit of love.
      3. (also figuratively) To make (something, especially spirits such as gin and whisky) by distillation.
    6. (obsolete) To dissolve or melt (something).
      • 1705, J[oseph] Addison, “Rome”, in Remarks on Several Parts of Italy, &c. in the Years 1701, 1702, 1703, London: [] Jacob Tonson, [], OCLC 1051505315, page 361:
        Swords by the Light'ning's ſubtile Force diſtill'd, / And the cold Sheath with running Metal fill'd: []
  2. (intransitive)
    1. To fall or trickle down in small drops; to exude, to ooze out; also, to come out as a vapour which condenses in small drops.
    2. To flow or pass gently or slowly; hence (figuratively) to be manifested gently or gradually.
    3. To drip or be wet with some liquid.
    4. To turn into a vapour and then condense back into a liquid; to undergo or be produced by distillation.


Alternative forms[edit]

Derived terms[edit]

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  1. ^ distillen, v.”, in MED Online, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 2007.
  2. ^ Compare “distil | distill, v.”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, December 2021; “distil, v.”, in Lexico, Dictionary.com; Oxford University Press, 2019–2022.

Further reading[edit]

Old High German[edit]

Alternative forms[edit]


From Proto-West Germanic *þistil, see also Old English þistel, Old Norse þistill.


distil f

  1. thistle


  • Middle High German: distel