11 Boozy Word Origins

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iStock

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.

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
- Nelsonville 12-Piece Multiple Chairs Seating Group $1860 (Save 56 percent)
- Collingswood Three-Piece Seating Group with Cushions $410 (Save 33 percent)

Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
- Portable Three-Burner Propane Gas Grill $104 (Save 20 percent)
- Digital Bluetooth Electric Smoker $224 (Save 25 percent)
- Cuisinart Grilling Tool Set $38 (Save 5 percent)

Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

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- Giant Four in a Row Game $30 (Save 6 percent)
- Giant Jenga Game $119 (Save 30 percent)

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

The Racist Origins of 7 Common Phrases

Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup, Unsplash
Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup, Unsplash

Even the most nonsensical idioms in the English language originated somewhere. Some terms, like silver lining and tomfoolery, have innocuous roots, while other sayings date back to the darkest chapters in U.S. history. While these common phrases are rarely used in their original contexts today, knowing their racist origins casts them in a different light.

1. Tipping Point

This common phrase describes the critical point when a change that had been a possibility becomes inevitable. When it was popularized, according to Merriam-Webster, it was applied to one phenomenon in particular: white flight. In the 1950s, as white people abandoned urban areas for the suburbs in huge numbers, journalists began using the phrase tipping point in relation to the percentage of minority neighbors it took to trigger this reaction in white city residents. Tipping point wasn’t coined in the 1950s (it first appeared in print in the 19th century), but it did enter everyday speech during the decade thanks to this topic.

2. Long Time, No See

The saying long time, no see can be traced back to the 19th century. In a Boston Sunday Globe article from 1894, the words are applied to a Native American speaker. The broken English phrase was also used to evoke white people's stereotypical ideas of Native American speech in William F. Drannan’s 1899 book Thirty-One Years on the Plains and in the Mountains, Or, the Last Voice from the Plains An Authentic Record of a Life Time of Hunting, Trapping, Scouting and Indian Fighting in the Far West.

It's unlikely actual Native Americans were saying long time, no see during this era. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this type of isolating construction would have been unusual for the indigenous languages of North America. Rather, it originated as a way for white writers to mock Native American speech, and that of non-native English speakers from other places like China. By the 1920s, it had become an ordinary part of the American vernacular.

3. Mumbo Jumbo

Before it was synonymous with jargon or other confusing language, the phrase mumbo jumbo originated with religious ceremonies in West Africa. In the Mandinka language, the word Maamajomboo described a masked dancer who participated in ceremonies. Former Royal African Company clerk Francis Moore transcribed the name as mumbo jumbo in his 1738 book Travels into the Inland Parts of Africa. In the early 1800s, English speakers started to divorce the phrase from its African origins and apply it to anything that confused them.

4. Sold Down the River

Before the phrase sold down the river meant betrayal, it originated as a literal slave-trading practice. Enslaved people from more northerly regions were sold to cotton plantations in the Deep South via the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. For enslaved people, the threat of being “sold down the river” implied separation from family and a life of hard labor. A journal entry from April 1835 mentions a person who, “having been sold to go down the river, attempted first to cut off both of his legs, failing to do that, cut his throat, did not entirely take his life, went a short distance and drowned himself.”

5. No Can Do

Similar to long time, no see, no can do originated as a jab at non-native English speakers. According to the OED, this example was likely directed at Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century. Today, many people who use the phrase as general slang for "I can’t do that" are unaware of its cruel origins.

6. Indian Giver

Merriam-Webster defines an Indian giver as “a person who gives something to another and then takes it back.” One of the first appearances was in Thomas Hutchinson’s History of the Colony of Massachuset’s Bay in the mid 18th century. In a note, it says “An Indian gift is a proverbial expression, signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected.” In the 19th century, the stereotype was transferred from the gift to the giver, the idea of an “equivalent return” was abandoned, and it became used as an insult. An 1838 N.-Y. Mirror article mentions the “distinct species of crimes and virtues” of schoolchildren, elaborating, "I have seen the finger pointed at the Indian giver. (One who gives a present and demands it back again.)" Even as this stereotype about indigenous people faded, the phrase Indian giver has persisted into the 21st century. The word Indian in Indian giver also denotes something false, as it does in the antiquated phrase Indian summer.

7. Cakewalk

In the antebellum South, some enslaved African Americans spent Sundays dressing up and performing dances in the spirit of mocking the white upper classes. The enslavers didn’t know they were the butt of the joke, and even encouraged these performances and rewarded the best dancers with cake, hence the name. Possibly because this was viewed as a leisurely weekend activity, the phrase cakewalk became associated with easy tasks. Cakewalks didn’t end with slavery: For decades, they remained (with cake prizes) a part of African American life, but at the same time white actors in blackface incorporated the act into minstrel shows, turning what began as a satire of white elites into a racist caricature of Black people.