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A drinking bout in several parts (Part 6)

By Anatoly Liberman
The word beestings once had its day in court. About half a century ago, American linguists were busy discussing whether there is something they called juncture, a boundary signal that supposedly helps people to distinguish ice cream from I scream when they hear such combinations. A special sign (#) was introduced in transcription: /ais#krim/ as opposed to /ai#skrim/. The two crown examples for the existence of juncture in Modern English were nitrate versus night rate and beestings versus bee stings. I remember asking

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A drinking bout in several parts (Part 5: Toast)

By Anatoly Liberman

Toasting, a noble art, deserves the attention of all those (etymologists included) who drink for joy, rather than for getting drunk. The origin of the verb to toast “parch,” which has been with us since the end of the 14th century, poses no problems. Old French had toster “roast, grill,” and Italian tostare seems to be an unaltered continuation of the Romance protoform. Tost- is the root of the past participle of Latin torrere (the second conjugation) “parch.” English has the same root in torrid and less obviously

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A drinking bout in several parts (Part 4: Booze)

By Anatoly Liberman

Booze is an enigmatic word, but not the way ale, beer and mead are. Those emerged centuries ago, and it does not come as a surprise that we have doubts about their ultimate origin. The noun booze is different: it does not seem to predate the beginning or the 18th century, with the verb booze “to tipple, guzzle” making its way into a written text as early as 1300 (which means that it turned up in everyday speech some time earlier). The riddles connected with booze are two.

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A drinking bout in several parts (Part 3.5: Mead, concluded)

By Anatoly Liberman
We may assume that people, wherever they lived, learned to use honey and even practiced apiculture before dairy products became part of their diet, for honey can be found and consumed in its natural state, while milk, cheese, butter, and the rest presuppose the existence of domesticated animals, be it horses, cows, sheep, or goats, and of a developed industry. However, humans are mammals, so that the word for “milk” is probably contemporaneous with language, even though no Common Indo-European term for it existed (for example, the word

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A drinking bout in several parts (Part 3: Mead)

By Anatoly Liberman


Tales that explain the origin of things are called etiological. All etymologies are etiological tales by definition. It seems that one of the main features of Homo sapiens has always been his unquenchable desire to get drunk. Sapiens indeed! The most ancient intoxicating drink of the Indo-Europeans was mead. Moreover, it seems that several neighboring tribes borrowed the name of this drink from them (and undoubtedly the drink itself: otherwise, what would have been the point of taking over the word?), for we have Finnish mesi, Proto-Chinese

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A drinking bout in several parts (Part 2: Beer)

By Anatoly Liberman

At 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 my promise. In a note dated December 1892, we can read the following: “Shandygaff is the name of a mixture of beer and ginger-beer…, and according to evidence given at the recent trial of the East Manchester election petition, a mixture of bitter beer and lemonade is in Manchester called a smiler.” Shandygaff and especially its shortened form shandy are still well-known words

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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.

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A Drinking Bout in Several Parts (Part 1: Ale)

By Anatoly Liberman

English lacks a convenient word for “ancestors of Germanic speaking people.” Teutons, an obsolete English gloss for German Germanen, is hardly ever used today. The adjective Germanic has wide currency, and, when pressed for the noun, some people translate Germanen as “Germans” (not a good solution). I needed this introduction as an apology for asking the question: “What did the ancient Teutons drink?” The “wine card” contained many items, for, as usual, not everybody drank the same, and different occasions called for different beverages and required

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