One for the Road

After looking at the differences between the English words for animals and the meat we get from them, I was curious about the words we use for alcoholic drinks, and whether they display a similar Germanic/Latin divide.

In fact, things are a little more complex than a simple distinction like that. Wine and beer, for example, both come from old Germanic words, but those words themselves were derived from Latin. Vinum was the Latin word for wine, and it’s believed that many European words come from the Latin biber (a drink), coming from the verb bibere (from which we get the modern verb to imbibe).

What’s the significance of this? I think it shows how universal drinking alcohol has always been. Certain foods can become exclusive due to their unavailability or difficulty of production. Alcohol on the other hand, doesn’t make much to make, apart from some simple ingredients and time. It’s not so surprising if the word beer does indeed come from the Latin word for drink, as it’s been a standard, very common drink for thousands of years across many cultures. Beer and wine weren’t exclusive to any particular social group, and therefore their etymology isn’t exclusively either Germanic (the language of the common folk) or Latin (the language of the elites).

Another interesting alcohol-related word is spirits. Referring to strong, distilled drinks such as rum, vodka, and whiskey, the word is believed to be related to Middle-Eastern alchemy. The vapours given off by liquids in alchemical reactions (similar to the evaporation in the distillation process) were considered to be the spirits of the liquids. Whiskey (or whisky if you’re referring to Scotch) in particular has an impressive etymology, coming from the Old Irish uisce beatha (water of life, probably borrowed from the Latin term acqua vitae, used to refer to numerous alcoholic drinks throughout history)

So beer and wine are pretty straightforward, everyday drinks, but spirits have a mystical, magical origin. Remember that the next time you’re slumped on a couch at 5am with a whiskey bottle in your hand.

8 thoughts on “One for the Road

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