Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

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

In March 2006, Anatoly Liberman joined OUPblog, “living in sin” as the Oxford Etymologist. Every Wednesday for the past five years he has delighted us with theories, research, and amusing anecdotes about words and language, and today we celebrate with beer! Professor Liberman, we raise our glasses to you. Cheers! Long live the Oxford Etymologist!

I’m raffling off a free copy of Word Origins to celebrate. If you’d like to enter, just leave a comment, sharing your favorite Oxford Etymologist post and why. While you’re at it, feel free to ask the professor a question. The winner will be contacted early next week.

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 (like smiler, shandy can also contain lemonade), but it would be interesting to hear from Manchester whether smiler is still current there.  The older the word, the more respect it inspires in us, and we forget that language has always flourished on the rich garbage of human communication, which includes jokes, slang, and all kinds of word games.  Scholars make desperate efforts to find Hittite, Greek, and Germanic roots preserved in the most ancient form of ale, while it may have been some funny coinage like shandygaff or smiler.  Although etymologists exist to remove the accumulation of dust from modern vocabulary, they needn’t treat every speck of that dust as a sacred relic.

To remind modern readers that in England ale never had the ceremonial glamour associated with it in medieval Scandinavia, I would like to call their attention to the obsolete (thank heavens, obsolete) word ale-dagger “a weapon used in alehouse brawls.”  Here is a passage from Sir John Smythe’s 1590 Certen Discourses concerning Weapons.  I will retain the orthography of the original (the words, like certen in the title, are easy to recognize): “Long heavie daggers also, with great brauling Ale-house hilts (which were never used but for private fraies and brauules, and within lesse than these fortie yeres), they doo no waies disallow.”  Good grief!  Heavy daggers with great hilts, designed for the purpose of settling private disputes were “in no way” disallowed!  Speak of the Second Amendment and the right of an individual to bear firearms for self-defence!  In the middle of the 16th century “citizens” did not carry guns in pubs and had to look, speak, and use only daggers.  Primitive, backward people.  Brawls in alehouses were already mentioned in Old English laws.  Human behavior changes slowly, if at all.

After so much etymological ale, we can now tackle beer.  Unlike ale, recorded in all the Old Germanic languages except Gothic, beer is at present a West Germanic word (German, English, Dutch, etc.).  Its Old Scandinavian cognate is usually believed to be a borrowing from Old English; yet no decisive arguments have been adduced in support of this idea.  The Goths did not know the word at all.  In Anglo-Saxon England, the ceremonial intoxicating beverage was apparently mead (medu or meodu), not ale (ealu), but mead was not used much in those days, for references to it occur mainly to conjure up pictures of joyful feasts.  Despite a great deal of later confusion, beer and ale were different drinks in tenth- and eleventh-century England.  Ale, as far as we know, was ubiquitous, and its absence in other lands called for a special comment.  According to the extant recipes, ale and mead required sweetening, while beer did not.  Christine E. Fell, on whose investigation of the subject my exposition depends to a very great extent, concluded that English beer, which could be light or strong, was at that time sweet.  This is a plausible conclusion.  Likewise, in medieval Scandinavia beer was a honey-based drink, whereas ale was malt-based.  Beer was also a more potent beverage than ale (for example, if consumed to excess, it could cause an abortion; at any rate, people thought so).

In Germany, a country nowadays associated with beer drinking more than any other part of Europe, the word for “ale” disappeared quite early and, judging by the scribes’ translation from Latin, medieval German beer meant what their neighbors called ale, and it was malt-based.  But in England the malt-based alcohol was ale.  To make the situation quite clear: mead was fermented honey and water, wine fermented grape juice, and beer a drink made from honey and the juice of a fruit other than grapes.  Consequently, the Old English word for “beer” did not refer to “beer” as we now have it; the present day meaning emerged only when England began to import hopped beer from the continent and do it on a large scale. If this conclusion is right, it follows that the often-cited etymological connection of beer with barley should be rejected and that not every intoxicating drink deserves to be called John Barleycorn.  Contrary to Germany, in early England and Scandinavia beer meant “ale,” and the word in present day use came to England with continental beer.  In a way, it is a borrowing from German, though, naturally, this “borrowing” is a cognate of Old Engl. beor.  What then is the etymology of beor, regardless of its ancient meaning?

As early as the 17th century, a suggestion was made that the Germanic word is a reshaping by monks of Latin bibere “to drink” (also used as a noun “drink”) in its Gallo-Romance form biver.  (Dictionaries ascribe the bibere etymology to Jacob Grimm, which is unfair, but he may have been unaware of his distant predecessor; such things occasionally happened even to him.)  The greatest support for this idea is Slavic pivo “beer,” from the root of the verb piti “to drink.”  A common Indo-European ancestor of Germanic bi- and Slavic pi– can be reconstructed with some confidence, for Latin bibere is believed to go back to pibere, but it does not follow that beer has anything to do with pivo, and no phonetic bridge will connect biver with the oldest Germanic form of beer.  Another common etymology traces beer to the root of the verb brew.  It has to reckon with the loss of r after b.  Similar cases (that is, br- becoming b-) have been attested, but one could wish for an easier derivation of such a short noun.   On the whole, from a linguistic point of view we are not much better off with beer than with ale.  Perhaps some words for “liquor” were coined by drunks unable to pronounce the simplest consonant groups (like br, for instance).  Unlike them, some (not all!) linguists are dry and sober people and would not know the difference between Welsh ale and stout even if their life depended on it.  This, however, is a mere rhetorical flourish that has no relevance for either the beer brewing industry or linguistics.

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 [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. Mary Capps

    I get almost as excited about a good etymology as I do about a fine ale so, of course, I must go with A Drinking Bout in Several Parts (Part 1: Ale)…and A Drinking Bout in Several Parts (Part 1.5: Ale continued)…and today’s A Drinking Bout in Several Parts (Part 2: Beer). I think I see a trend here.

  2. Tom Holmes

    I just your blog a few weeks ago. The first entry I read is probably my favorite so far. You can read about it here: http://thelinebreak.wordpress.com/2011/02/23/todays-favorite-blogs-or-how-i-love-oxford-and-words/

    So there’s genuine entry for the Word Origins contest.

    Find Beauty,

  3. Richard Tracey

    My favorite posting to this blog is https://blog.oup.com/2010/03/gleanings-march/ because I am mentioned in it.

  4. John Cowan

    Turkeys, heresy, hops, and beer / Came into England all in one year.

    (More like one decade: the 1520s.)

  5. Russell Cross

    As an ex-pat living in the US, my typical discussion about ale is with regard to the temperature at which it is served and rarely its etymology. It’s become almost a duty to explain why English beer is not “warm” but “cellar temperature,” and that ice-cold ale just doesn’t taste right. The perspective always comes from the fact that America beer is designed to be served ice cold.

    And my fascination with all things spirituous is probably why one of my favorite postings is on the history of rum (https://blog.oup.com/2010/10/rum), another one of my favorite tipples.

  6. […] 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 wine […]

Comments are closed.