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A Drinking Bout in Several Parts (Part 1.5: Ale continued)

By Anatoly Liberman


The surprising thing about the runic alu (on which see the last January post), the probable etymon of ale, is its shortness.  The protoform was a bit longer and had t after u, but the missing part contributed nothing to the word’s meaning.  To show how unpredictable the name of a drink may be (before we get back to ale), I’ll quote a passage from Ralph Thomas’s letter to Notes and Queries for 1897 (Series 8, volume XII, p. 506). It is about the word fives, as in a pint of fives, which means “…‘four ale’ and ‘six ale’ mixed, that is, ale at fourpence a quart and sixpence a quart.  Here is another: ‘Black and tan.’  This is stout and mild mixed.  Again, ‘A glass of mother-in-law’ is old ale and bitter mixed.”  Think of an etymologist who will try to decipher this gibberish in two thousand years!  We are puzzled even a hundred years later.

Prior to becoming a drink endowed with religious significance, ale was presumably just a beverage, and its name must have been transparent to those who called it alu, but we observe it in wonder.   On the other hand, some seemingly clear names of alcoholic drinks may also pose problems.  Thus, Russian vodka, which originally designated a medicinal concoction of several herbs, consists of vod-, the diminutive suffix k, and the feminine ending aVod- means “water,” but vodka cannot be understood as “little water”!  The ingenious conjectures on the development of this word, including an attempt to dissociate vodka from voda “water,” will not delay us here.  The example only shows that some of the more obvious words belonging to the semantic sphere of ale may at times turn into stumbling blocks.  More about the same subject next week.

Hypotheses on the etymology of ale go in several directions.  According to one, ale is related to Greek aluein “to wander, to be distraught.”  The Greek root alu- can be seen in hallucination, which came to English from Latin.  The suggested connection looks tenuous, and one expects a Germanic cognate of such a widespread Germanic word.  Also, it does not seem that intoxicating beverages are ever named for the deleterious effect they make.  A similar etymology refers ale to a Hittite noun alwanzatar “witchcraft, magic, spell,” which in turn can be akin to Greek aluein.  More likely, however, ale did not get its name in a religious context, and I would like to refer to the law I have formulated for myself: a word of obscure etymology should never be used to elucidate another obscure word.  Hittite is an ancient Indo-European language once spoken in Asia Minor.  It has been dead for millennia.  Some Hittite and Germanic words are related, but alwanzatar is a technical term of unknown origin and thus should be left out of consideration in the present context.  The most often cited etymology (it can be found in many dictionaries) ties ale to Latin alumen “alum,” with the root of both being allegedly alu- “bitter.”  Apart from some serious phonetic difficulties this reconstruction entails, here too we would prefer to find related forms closer to home (though Latin-Germanic correspondences are much more numerous than those between Germanic and Hittite), and once again we face an opaque technical term, this time in Latin.

Equally far-fetched are the attempts to connect ale with Greek alke “defence” and Old Germanic alhs “temple.”  The first connection might work if alke were not Greek.  I am sorry for beating a dead horse with such vigor (all the languages mentioned above are dead), but I should repeat: ale had related forms nearly everywhere in Old Germanic, and basing its etymology on a single non-Germanic cognate inspires little confidence. Although occasionally one sees respectable etymologies depending on the existence of a common Germanic word and a chance congener in Greek, in those cases the situation is clear, whereas “ale” and “temple” are such remote concepts that the association needs proof.  The idea that ale has something to do with religious services would be more appealing if we were sure that this drink had been brewed at the beginning of time mainly for solemn occasions, but no evidence to this effect exists.  (Perhaps someone thought of alcohol as being helpful.  No, alcohol is an Arabic word in which al- is the article.)  To understand what made the ancient Teutons call their drink ale, researchers have searched everywhere for words beginning with al-, but, as one can see, they have not been too successful.

If ale and alu are related, the nature of the relationship is valid only for Scandinavia.  Elsewhere ale did not necessarily have to be endowed with magic properties.  We should also remember that alu was with great regularity paired in runic inscriptions with the word for “leek”; it follows that, among other things, people used ale for curing or preventing diseases.  Vodka, to return to Russia, also first appeared there as a medicinal concoction.  Certain similarities between the two names cannot be denied.  We know too little about the uses and preparation of ale (except that it was, most probably, a malt-based alcohol), to offer a safe etymology of the word, and why ale rather than beer acquired such importance in Scandinavia remains unclear.  Additionally, it will be shown in the next installment of this drinking bout that in Anglo-Saxon England, ale was served in alehouses, that is, pubs, while the ceremonial drink was mead, consumed at feasts in mead halls.  Yet the comparison is strained, for alu was attested at the beginning of the first millennium, while Anglo-Saxon literature (in the form in which it has come down to us) flourished at its end.

Of the more recent proposals of the origin of ale, two deserve our attention.  By a coincidence, both were put forth by Scandinavian scholars.  One connects ale with the Germanic verb alan “to grow, to swell” (the root of alan has been retained in the English adjective old, German alt of the same meaning, etc.).  Ale emerges from this reconstruction as a “swelling drink,” with reference to the process of brewing.  The reference is a bit too general but certainly not to be rejected out of hand, especially because Greek broutos (usually glossed as “beer,” a loan from Thracian), which is akin to Engl. broth and brew, means “boil up,” a concept close to “swell.”  The other traces ale to the color word “red, brown” (compare black and tan, mentioned at the beginning of this post).  The trees alder and elm, as well as the animal elk, begin with al- ~ el- because they have this color.  But in Germanic only plant and animal names contain this root, so that this hypothesis also looks less inviting than it may seem.  Alas, the discoverer of ale seems to have taken the secret of the word to his grave (and if it was a woman, then to hers).

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 blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. [...] the beginning of the previous post, I promised to say more about some strange names of beverages.  The time has come to make good on [...]

  2. Benjamin Slade

    Re: “If ale and alu are related, the nature of the relationship is valid only for Scandinavia.” and also in _Beer_ post: “To remind modern readers that in England ale never had the ceremonial glamour associated with it in medieval Scandinavia…”

    What about the ALU inscription (in “mirror runes”) on the 5th century cremation urns in the Spong Hill burial site in Norfolk, England?

    These would seem to suggest a wider currency for the “magical” sense of alu.

  3. [...] time ago, I devoted three posts to alcoholic beverages: ale, beer, and mead. It has occurred to me that, since I have served drinks, I should also take care of [...]

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