The Rum History of the Word “Rum”
By Anatoly Liberman
The idea of this post, as of several others before it, has been suggested by a query from a correspondent. A detailed answer would have exceeded the space permitted for the entire set of monthly gleanings, so here comes an essay on the word rum, written on the first rather than the last Wednesday of October. But before I get to the point, I would like to make a remark on the amnesia that afflicts students of word origins. Etymology is perhaps the only completely anonymous branch of linguistics. When people look up a word, they hardly ever ask who reconstructed its history. Surround seems to be related to round, but it is not. On the other hand, soot does not make us think of sit; yet the two are allied. Obviously, neither conclusion is trivial. Even specialists rarely know the names of the discoverers (for those are hard to trace). Unlike Ohm’s Law or Newton’s laws, etymological knowledge easily becomes faceless common property, a plateau without a single hill to obstruct the view. To be sure, we have great authorities, such as the OED and Skeat, but Murray, Bradley (the OED’s first great editors) and Skeat authored only some of the statements they made. In many cases they depended on the findings of their predecessors. What then was their input? All is either forgotten or falsely ascribed to them. Murray could defend his authorship very well. Skeat, too, in countless letters to the editor, strove (strived: take your pick) for recognition and kept rubbing in the fact that he, rather than somebody else, had elucidated the derivation of this or that word. Rarely, very rarely do dictionaries celebrate individual discovery. Thus, pedigree (which French “lent” to English) means “foot of a crane,” from a three-line mark, like the broad arrow used in denoting succession in pedigrees. This was explained by C. Sweet and Skeat gave the exact reference to his publication. Something similar, though less spectacular (because the conclusion is still debatable), happened when language historians began to research the history of the noun rum.
The most universal law of etymology is that we cannot explain the origin of a word unless we have a reasonably good idea of what the thing designated by the word means. For quite some time people pointed to India as the land in which rum was first consumed and did not realize that in other European languages rum was a borrowing from English. The misleading French spelling rhum suggested a connection with Greek rheum “stream, flow” (as in rheumatism). According to other old conjectures, rum is derived from aroma or saccharum. India led researchers to Sanskrit roma “water” as the word’s etymon, and this is what many otherwise solid 19th-century dictionaries said. Webster gave the vague, even meaningless reference “American,” but on the whole, the choice appeared to be between East and West Indies. Skeat, in the first edition of his dictionary (1882), suggested Malayan origins (from beram “alcoholic drink,” with the loss of the first syllable) and used his habitual eloquence to boost this hypothesis.
Then The Academy, a periodical that enjoyed well-deserved popularity throughout the forty years of its existence (1869-1910), published the following paragraph. (The Imperial Dictionary [not A Universal Dictionary of the English Language, as Spitzer says] gives it in full, but I suspect that few of our readers have access to or ever use it and will therefore reproduce the paragraph.) The Academy, September 5, 1885, p. 155: “Mr. N. Darnell Davis has put forth a derivation of the word rum, which gives the only probable history of it. It came from Barbados, where the planters first distilled it, somewhere between 1640 and 1645. A MS. ‘Description of Barbados’ in Trinity College, Dublin, written about 1651, says: ‘the chief fudling (sic) they make in the Island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Divil (sic), and this is made of sugar-canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.’ G. Warren’s description of Surinam, 1661, shows the word in its present short form: ‘Rum is a spirit extracted from the juice,…called Kill-Devil in New England!’ ‘Rumbullion’, is a Devonshire word meaning ‘a great tumult,’ and may have been adopted from some of the Devonshire settlers in Barbados; at any rate, little doubt can exist that it has given rise to our word rum, and the longer name rumbowling, which sailors give to their grog.” Also in 1885, berummaged “confused” was recorded on Dartmoor, and still later it became clear that French guildive is a “corruption” of Engl. kill-devil. According to Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, many of the settlers in Barbados, at the time when sugar making was being established there, came from Devonshire. I have no way to check the reliability of this statement.
Skeat accepted Davis’s etymology unconditionally, and since that time it has become commonplace. However, some dictionaries, including the OED, show caution, supply the explanation with a question mark, or even say that the origin or rum is “uncertain.” The etymology of rumbullion will concern us here only in so far as it may be a combination of the adjective rum and French boullion “hot drink.” That adjective has been rather convincingly traced to Romany rom “male” (= “Gypsy man, good man”), a once ubiquitous cant word. Romeville (that is, Rumville) was London, and so on. Hensleigh Wedgwood, the main etymologist of the pre-Skeat era, thought that rum is a curtailed form of rum booze “great drink.” Indeed, in 1567 wine was called rum booze in Elizabethan slang.
In this context it will be proper to mention an article whose title promises nothing to word lovers but that contains numerous ingenious etymologies (John P. Hughes, “On ‘h’ for ‘r’ in English Proper Names”, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 53, 1954, 601-12). A strong bond unites h and r in the history of all the Germanic languages. Alternations of the Hob ~ Rob type are the thin edge of a big, heavy wedge. Hughes suggests that rum booze was taken for a plural (rumboes); then the new singular rumbo “strong punch” allegedly came up, from which rum would be a shortened form. Rumbo was attested only in the middle of the 18th century, but slang words may exist for a long time before they make their way into print. A curious thing is that hum “alcoholic drink” has been recorded too; in Hughes’s opinion, it is a stub of humbooze and a doublet of rumbooze or rum booze.
The way to rum from rum booze is shorter than from rumbullion (or rumbustion, also “tumult, hubbub, etc.”), but the fact remains that rum reached England from Barbados. It is, however, not improbable that the phrase rum booze had existed in the speech of the English settlers on the Caribbean island and was taken overseas. If so, rumbullion, from rum (adjective) and French boullion “hot drink,” was a verbal joke, a pun. (In England, rum was known very little, if at all, before 1685, when after the battle of Sedgemoor the Duke of Monmouth tasted the drink. It must have been one of the last pleasures the rebellious duke enjoyed before his execution.) In any case, rum “a drink” and rum “odd” cannot be separated. There was quite a fashion for rum- coinages in the 18th century: compare rumgumption, from which we have the abbreviated form gumption “common sense” (originally perhaps “rough common sense”), while rumbustious “boisterous, violent” sounds suspiciously like rambunctious “mischievous, self-asserting.” Leo Spitzer believed that the French argot word rogomme “strong drink” goes back to Engl. rumgumption. Some details remain hidden, but one thing is clear: excessive consumption of rum results in violent behavior.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”