11 Boozy Word Origins
By John Kelly
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.