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In one’s cups, or: good wine needs no bush

A Happy New Year! It has arrived, in full accordance with The Oxford Etymologist’s bold promise. Once upon a time, the ability to see into the future was called second sight (clairvoyance is too bookish). Despite the success of my prediction, this blog is sadly divorced from everyday life: it exists sub specie aeternitatis, that is, under the aspect of eternity, and deals with things independent of current events. A typical language column is a tuning fork. For example, some very important person gives a speech and calls his opponent, reproachfully or admiringly, brash. On the next day, at least fifteen journalists fall over the great man’s word chest and discuss the origin of this not too common adjective, while I plod along, making my way through curses and blessings, clover and clod, borrowed cats and onomatopoeic dogs, oblivious to (I grew up saying oblivious of) the tumult of everyday life. No, no one whom I know has recently used brash in a political statement: it just happens to be the word I hope to discuss in the nearest future.  The public, I believe, should be informed about such plans well in advance. But it occurred to me that perhaps some of our readers drank champagne while seeing in the New Year, and therefore I decided to devote the first post of 2017 to good wine.

As early as 1873, Walter W. Skeat wrote authoritatively (as was his wont) that bush in the saying good wine needs no bush “is well known to be that which was tied to the end of an ale-stake.” Perhaps so (though we will see that what is well-known may not be indubitable), but there was a Latin proverb sounding suspiciously like its English analog: “Vino vendibilis suspensa hedera [“ivy”] non (or nihil) opus est.” As Shakespeare’s Taverner explains at the close of As You Like It: “Wine that is saleable and good needeth no bushe or garland of yvie to be hanged before.” This aphorism, in the Latin form cited above, has been attributed to Erasmus. In any case, it is “modern” and apparently had no currency in England before Shakespeare’s or at least Camden’s time.

Ivy was the plant sacred to Bacchus, so that its association with wine is natural. Taverner understood the proverb as we do: good merchandise needs no advertising, for its quality speaks for itself (with the implication: “A good play needs no epilog”). The indispensable E. Cobham Brewer (what a name in this context!), the author of Dictionary of Word and Fable (1898), retold in detail what he had found about the custom. Those who still use his first edition should beware of taking his explanations for the ultimate truth, but in this case modern sources add nothing new.

Bacchus and his plant: the poison and its antidote.
Bacchus and his plant: the poison and its antidote.

The literature on the idiom that interests us here devotes some space to ale poles, and I will quote part of what I have read, but one thing remains undisputed: the Latin adage mentions ivy, while the English version does not. The French equivalent is closer to Latin (lierre is again “ivy”): “Au vin qui se vend bien, il ne faut point de lierre.” I also see a certain contradiction: why did every tavern display the sign if the quality of its wine was assured? An author stated in 1888 that there was scarcely a town in England without its “Bush Inn.” It is as though some link between the Latin saying and the English custom is missing. The same author also suggested that Engl. busky “drunk” has its origin in the association between wine and bush. Busky, or its better-known variant bosky, does mean “tipsy,” but its connection with bushes is somewhat uncertain. In any case, the suggestion given above is not worse than any other.

I would like to refer to a note by R. R. Sharpe in Athenæum/2 for 1888, p. 260. In a document going back to 1350, he found evidence that it had been customary to place a bunch or bush of rosemary or other herb in a drinking vessel, either to give a particular flavor to the beverage or, as he remarked, to disguise the inferior quality of the wine. “Of bush in this sense it is clear that good wine stands in no need.” Sharpe’s conjecture sounds convincing (and, if so, the traditional reference to the pole is the product of folk etymology). It also strengthens the etymology of busky ~ bosky, offered above, though very much depends on when this slang word turned up; with such popular coinages one never knows. The OED has a relatively late attestation, but this is not surprising.

According to a widespread belief, ivy (or rather its berries) was a preventive of drunkenness. Pliny and Cato thought so, and old English herbalists shared their opinion. Regardless of whether this belief has foundation in fact, with it several things come together. Very early, people discovered that an antidote should contain the same elements as the poison. Their discovery makes no sense only when it is carried to an absurd extreme. Probably everybody knows the phrase a hair of the dog that bit you. Nowadays, it occurs when one drinks something to cure the hangover, very often the stuff that caused the intoxication. But in the past it was widely held that, if someone was bitten by a dog infected with rabies, a hair of that dog prepared in a certain way could provide an antidote.

Like cures like. Myths tell us that a supernatural creature could be killed with no weapon except its own. The great hero Beowulf kills Grendel and then descends to the bottom of the sea to fight Grendel’s mother. He has a wonderful sword, but it fails. However, when he attacks his enemy with a sword hanging on the wall of the cave, he kills Grendel’s “dame.” In similar fashion, I think the mistletoe was the only plant that could turn into a spear and kill the shining Scandinavian god Baldr because at one time it was probably dedicated to him. Bacchus (or Dionysius) was a god of inebriation (inebriation meant being closer to the forces that control our destiny). It is then natural that his plant was ivy, a powerful antidote.

A British tavern. No bush, no ale-post, but at least something green.

Now back to ale stakes. I am again paraphrasing Sharpe. At one time, ale stakes became such a nuisance, projecting in front of taverns and so far over the king’s highway as to impede riders’ progress. Moreover, by reason of their excessive weight they tended to the deterioration of the houses in which they were placed. An ordinance was made prohibiting anyone having such an ale stake or leaves over the king’s highway more than seven feet in length at the utmost, on pain of being fined. Everything, we conclude, is good in moderation.

John Barleycorn got up again.

Much to my regret, today’s young Americans rarely read Jack London. Some schools still recommend The Call of the Wild, not his best book. His short stories, which can be found at any good library, enjoy almost no popularity. But since this post is about drinking, may I suggest to those who have not read his book John Barleycorn to do so? It is an engrossing autobiographical novel by a non-anonymous alcoholic.

Images: (1) “Bacchus” by Caravaggio, Public Domain via Wikiart. (2) “Greencoat Boy, Westminster, SW1” by Ewan Munro, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr. Featured image: Ivy by Didgeman, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    The OED3’s quotations have oblivious of and oblivious to first appearing at almost the same time, the mid-19C. For me at least, the first means ‘unaware of’; the second means ‘forgetful of’ and is much more common.

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