alcohol
n. (organic chemistry, countable) Any of a class of organic compounds (such as ethanol) containing a hydroxyl functional group (-OH).
n. (uncountable) An intoxicating beverage made by the fermentation of sugar or sugar-containing material.

One would generally expect such a popular item to have more interesting—potentially dirty or morbid—roots, but the clinical term by which we refer to that which we imbibe to get silly is nothing more than an organic chemistry term which applies to many different compounds, most of which we don’t (and shouldn’t) drink. The word alcohol itself is unchanged from the Middle English, which absorbed it as a chemical term from the Arabic al-kuħl) (الكحل). It, too, refers to a whole family of compounds, but popular usage tends to refer specifically to ethanol, which is the tasty sort that we drink at bars.

The word ethanol is a combination of the aforementioned alcohol and the prefix ethyl-, which is from the Greek αἰθήρ (“ether”), but very likely our current use of the prefix is more directly from the German äthyl, since Germany was kicking American butts in chemistry before we finally got our act together.

But what about the common man’s terms for alcohol? What about booze, liquor, hootch, and swill? What about all the various kinds of libations: wine, vodka, beer, rum, bourbon, whiskey, scotch, tequila, brandy, and moonshine? Turns out, the world of alcohol is as wide and elaborate as we initially thought.

First, the general

“Booze” comes to us in the 18th century as an orthographic variation of the Middle English bouse, then most commonly used in its verb form, “to drink a lot”. It was directly related to the similarly Germanic bousen (German) and buizen (Dutch). A common folk etymology is that “booze” comes from the early 20th-century distiller E.G. Booze, but the best we can say for Mr. Booze is that he might have made popular the use of “booze” as a noun rather than a verb.

“Liquor”, though it generally refers to distilled alcohol and not the fermented variety, technically applies to both. The word is, as it sounds, related to “liquid”, coming from the Latin liquor, which means… “a liquid”. Actually, our use may be filtered through the Anglo-Norman licur and Middle English licor1. It may indicate just how important alcohol was to people that it is so often referred to or associated with pure water or liquid (we’ll come back to this later).

“Hooch”, now a more generalized word usually indicating the sort of thing you’d drink out of a paper bag, originally referred to cheap (usually illegal) whiskey. The name is a shortening of the Hoochinoo Indians, a group of native Americans in Alaska whose whiskey was popular with gold miners working in the Klondike. In the Tlingit language, the name Hoochinoo is derived from Hutsnuwu, which means “grizzly bear fort”2 and therefore makes “hooch” the coolest word for alcohol ever.

Now, the specific

Words for alcohol are so multifarious because different kinds of alcohol arose from different cultures in geographically disparate locations. This gives us a rich etymological stock to work with. Alcohol itself, in the form of beer and wine, is such an old institution that it dates back to the Sumerians in the case of the former and the Greeks in the case of the latter3.

“Beer”, as one might surmise from its short and simple nature, is a very old word, its roots potentially lost in an era of proto-languages. Our modern English use is a derivation of the Old English beor. Some believe it to be a German absorption of the Vulgar Latin biber (from whence comes imbibe); or, the word could come from the Proto-Germanic root *beuwo-, which means “barley”, a constituent of the brewing process.

“Wine” is a somewhat more straightforward etymology. Our modern word comes from the Old English win, itself a borrowing from the Latin vinum, meaning “vine” and referring, clearly, to the vines on which the grapes are grown. Doug Harper posits that the earliest sources are likely Proto-Indo-European, from the root *win-o, and related to the Greek oinos—the Greeks were, remember, the first to popularize wine culture, and the Latinate Romans inherited the obsession from them. Wine tends to be universal, and the word for it in various languages tend to be cognates: German Wein; Afrikaans wyn; Danish vin; Dutch wijn; Welsh gwin; Spanish vino; Estonian vein; Lithuanian vynas; and so on.

The history of “brandy” is closely related to that of wine, since our modern “brandy” is a shortening of the word “brandywine”, itself from the Dutch brendewijn, meaning “burnt wine”. The German Branntwein is similar. The reference to burning comes due to the distillation (heating) of strong wine.

About the same time that brandywine was become popular, another drink known as “rum” was spreading throughout the world in the infamous triangular slave trade: molasses bought in the Carribbean was used to make this new sugary liquor in Europe and the New World. The word is a shortening of rumbullion, itself a word of largely unknown origin. The English use was pretty much directly adopted in most major European languages, including Russian, though given the nature of rum’s rise, I’m not sure we should be particularly proud of that fact.

I mentioned early the tendency for alcohol to be likened to pure water, or ranked in importance to such. There are many cultural reasons for this that I won’t delve into, but the phenomenon returns to us with the word “vodka”, which is a direct borrowing (albeit romanized) from the Russian водка vodka; the suffix -ka is a Russian diminuitive, having the same effect as the Spanish -ito, modify the Russian voda (“water”) to make a term meaning “little water”. The word itself is Proto-Indo-European from the root *wedor, and this same root gives rise to our modern English “water”4.

I’ve saved whisk[e]y for last because it’s my favorite; it’s also the most complicated, since “whiskey” is a rather generic term. As it happens, it dovetails nicely with the immediately preceding discussion of alcohol qua water. One of few words we’ve kept or adopted from Gaelic, “whiskey” is a derivation from uisge beatha, meaning “water of life”, itself from the Old Irish uisce and bethu, respectively. Douglas Harper thinks the Gaelic is a calque of the Latin aqua vitae, a general euphemism for alcohol for centuries.

At first, there was only Scotch (Scottish) whisky, but in the 1800s, there arose a difference between the whisky distilled in Scotland and the various whiskeys brewed in Ireland (think Jameson’s) and in America. One variety of American whiskey, known as bourbon (my favorite), gets its name from the county in which it was first made, itself named after a lineage of French kings. Harper thinks the name probably comes from the Celtic borvo, which means “foam” or “froth”.

  1. Fun fact: though unrelated to alcohol generally, the word “licorice” is tenuously related to this liquor/liquere cluster of words. It’s just that no one likes licorice nearly as much as they like booze…[]
  2. Source: Etmology Online[]
  3. For a good primer on alcohol consumption in the early days of humanity, see Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses[]
  4. The root is also that of the Greek hydor, which modern English has also adopted in words like “hydrate” and anything with the prefix “hydro-“.[]
§4982 · March 17, 2010 · Tags: , , ·

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