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11 Boozy Word Origins

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Whether barbecuing with an ice-cold brewski or sipping a G & T poolside, many of us will be kicking back this summer with our favorite adult beverages. While we’re at it, let’s reach into the etymological cooler and crack open the origins of some everyday booze names:

1. BEER

English has been guzzling the word beer since its early days. Served up from the Old English beor, beer has cognates in the Germanic languages. But for as much as we love to drink the beverage, etymologists don’t exactly know the word’s deeper origins. Some have suggested beer ultimately comes from an ancient Germanic root for “barley,” indeed a major ingredient of beer. Others suppose early monks borrowed beer from the Latin bibere, “to drink.” And as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) observes: “The word occurs in Old English, but its use is rare, except in poetry, and it seems to have become common only in the 16th c. as the name of hopped malt liquor.” Beer, ever the muse, apparently.

2. MEAD

Mead is made of honey—and so, too, is the word. It comes from the Old English medu, from a root for “honey” long fermenting in Indo-European languages. The root appears in the Greek methy, a word for “wine” featured in amethyst, literally “not drunk,” which the ancients reputed prevented inebriation.

3. WINE

Found in the record as early as 805, English corked the word wine from the Latin vinum, which also gives us the word for what grapes grow on: vines. Forms of the word wine are found all across Indo-European languages—and some think even in Semitic languages. The Arabic wain and Hebrew yayin lead some scholars to suggest an ancient root of wine in a lost Mediterranean language.

4. PORT

Port, a type of fortified wine, originally shipped to England out of the city Oporto, or in its Portuguese native, o porto, “the port.” Porto itself hails from the Latin portus (port, harbor) and is related to verb portare, “to carry or bring,” featured in English words from portable to transportation. Portus Cale was a Roman name for a settlement near Porto—and source of the name Portugal.

5. BRANDY

A spirit distilled from wine and often enjoyed as a digestif, brandy was shortened from brandy-wine when it was borrowed from the Dutch brandewijn in the mid-1600s. The Dutch word literally means “burnt wine,” with burnt referring to the process of distillation, in which the spirit’s purity was historically checked with flammability tests.

6. SHERRY

The word pease was mistaken as a plural, giving us a pea. The word cherise was also misconstrued as a plural, yielding a cherry. So, too, with sherry, another type of fortified wine from the Iberian peninsula. In his 1608 A Mad World, My Masters, playwright Thomas Middleton writes of shirry, taking it as the singular of sherris, the older name for this aperitif. Sherris comes from vino de Xeres, for the Spanish town, now Jerez, where it was made. Historically, the Spanish pronounced x like sh.

7. CIDER

While now largely fermented from apples, cider—or hard cider—etymologically had no fruit preferences. Making the rounds from French, Latin, and Greek, cider ultimately bubbles up from the Hebrew shekar, any “intoxicating liquor,” related to shakar, “to drink deeply or to the point of intoxication.” Early translators used forms of the word cider for references to “strong drink” in the Old Testament.

8. GIN

The name of this spirit was shortened in the early 1700s from geneva or genever, a drink the Dutch distilled from grain and flavored with juniper berries. Juniper is the etymological mixer here, as it were: the Dutch geneva/genever is borrowed from the French genevre, in turn formed from the Latin juniperus, meaning and source of the word juniper.

9. VODKA

As it’s often said, vodka means “water” in Russia. Well, technically it means something more like “little water.” Voda is “water” and, if we put back a couple of shots of Indo-European, is actually related to the English words water and wet. The -ka is a diminutive suffix—which may not express endearment as much as indicate, simply, its water-based content and water-like appearance. The word didn’t hit English shelves until the early 1800s.

10. WHISKEY

Speaking of water and stereotypes, whiskey comes from the Irish uisge beatha: “water of life.” Before reaching for the jokes, though, bear in mind that the Irish expression is probably a calque, or loan translation, of the Latin aqua vitae, also “water of life,” used of unrefined alcohol in 15th-century alchemy.

11. RUM

The origin of the word rum has had an etymological blackout, evidently. The earliest form so far attested for this sugarcane liquor is rumbullion in 1651, then rumbustion in 1652. The shortened rum appears by 1654. Word historians just aren’t certain where any of the forms come from, though they’ve served up many suggestions. One explanation roots rumbullion in an English dialectical word of the same name, meaning “tumult” or “uproar,” applied to the liquor due to its intoxicating effects. As for rumbustion, scholars suggest a playful blend of rumbullion and combustion, the latter again coloring rum’s results. Another links rum to the Malay beram, a kind of rice spirit, later elaborated to rumbullion. And yet another theory connects rum to an old slang term of obscure origin, rum, first meaning “excellent” and later “odd.” Indeed, the expression rum booze, or “good liquor,” is documented in 1688—and for imbibers of the beverage, that’s all that really matters in the end.

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language
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“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

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Big Questions
What’s the Difference Between a Gift and a Present?
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It’s that time again when we’re busy buying, wrapping, and giving them. Sometimes we call them gifts, sometimes presents. Is there a difference?

The words come to us from different language families. Gift comes from the old Germanic root for “to give.” It referred to an act of giving, and then, to the thing being given. In Old English it meant the dowry given to a bride’s parents. Present comes from the French for "to present." A present is the thing presented or bestowed. They were both in use for the idea of something undergoing a transfer of possession without expectation of payment from the 13th century onward.

The words gift and present are well-matched synonyms that mean essentially the same thing, but even well-matched synonyms have their own connotations and distinctive patterns of use. Gift applies to a wider range of situations. Gifts can be talents. You can have the gift of gab, or a musical gift. Gifts can be intangibles. There is the gift of understanding or the gift of a quiet day. We generally don’t use present for things like this. Presents are more concrete. A bit more, well, present. If your whole family gave donations to your college fund for your birthday would you say “I got a lot of presents”? It doesn’t exactly sound wrong, but since you never hold these donations in your hand, gifts seems to fit better.

Gift can also be an attributive noun, acting like an adjective to modify another noun. What do you call the type of shop where you can buy presents for people? A gift shop. What do you call the basket of presents that you can have sent to all your employees? A gift basket. Present doesn’t work well in this role of describing other nouns. We have gift boxes, gift cards, and gift wrap, not present boxes, present cards, and present wrap.

Gift appears to be more frequent than present, though it is difficult to get accurate counts, because if you compare occurrences of the noun present with the noun gift, you include that other noun present, meaning the here and now. However, the plural noun presents captures only the word we want. Gifts outnumbers presents in the Corpus of Contemporary American English by four to one.

Still, according to my personal sense of the words, present—though it may not be as common—is more casual sounding than gift. I expect a child to ask Santa for lots and lots of presents, not many, many gifts. But whether it’s gifts or presents you prefer, I wish you many and lots this year, of both the tangible and intangible kind.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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