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Some of our basic verbs: “drink”

Last week (see the post for December 11, 2019), I discussed the origin of the verb eat, which probably has the same root as the ancient Indo-European name of the tooth. Time will tell whether my idea to devote a few posts to such basic verbs will arouse any interest, but I decided to try again. So today the story will be devoted to the verb drink.

The Germanic cognates of drink are surprisingly uniform: in Frisian, Dutch, German, Scandinavian, and even Gothic, the verb is the same (disregarding minimal and fully predictable phonetic differences), but in the other Indo-European languages similar forms are either non-existent or hard to detect. Potion (and I am sorry to say, its etymological doublet poison, which did not always designate a deadly substance) came to English from Latin via Old French. It contains the root pō-, which alternated with pī-, not by ablaut (for the regular alternation ō ~ ī does not exist) but by some inexplicable whim. Was pō- ~ pī- an onomatopoetic, echoic word, like piss and gurgle, imitating the sound a stream of water makes? If so, vowels could alternate freely in it: for example, a measurable quantity of liquid might be called “pō,” while a small measure would be a mere “pī.” Compare Engl. sip, sop, sup.  Latin fell victim to a language game (typical of such words?) and turned pibere into bibere (recognizable from Engl. imbibe). Italian bere, French boire, and others are its descendants.

Quenching his thirst. Image by Olya Adamovich from Pixabay.

Those two forms of the same verb survived in many languages: some generalized – (for example, Latin and Baltic), while others chose – (notably so, Slavic: for example, the Russian for “drink” is pi-t’). We observe two roots: ed– “eat” and pō- ~ pī- “drink.” As follows from some facts of grammar, the first of them referred to the process, while the second stressed the result of the action.

Some dictionaries say that Germanic replaced the Indo-European root – with drink-. But there is no need to insist that Indo-European ever had a single verb for drinking, because the Germanic form could be a different word from the start, rather than an innovation. Although the origin of drink remains “unknown,” attempts to break the impasse have been numerous. An important circumstance should be taken into account here. Words of Indo-European often have n in the middle. Along with prefixes and suffixes, so-called infixes exist, n being the most important of them. It is hard to illustrate this phenomenon from Modern English, but compare stand and its past tense stood; the basic root is st[vowel]d. That is why nearly all hypotheses about the etymology of drink concentrate on the sound complex dr-k or dr-g, with the vowel being i, a, or u (the usual ablaut series, as in drink-drankdrunk and ring-rang-rung).

One search is especially instructive. In the recent posts on monomaniacs in etymology, I mentioned the names of Jost Trier and Jan de Vries. Both were serious, even brilliant scholars, but they often hoped to discover a single principle or factor, a golden key that might open too many doors. Trier attempted to derive numerous words from the concept of community. He produced strings of ingenious but dubious etymologies. Thus, he took the Classical Greek word thrigkós “fence” (read gk as nk), and from the idea of “fence” went to the reconstructed root dher- “to keep in place; support” and further to Old Icelandic drengr “pole, pillar”; hence “a valiant, honest man.” The next step led him to drink, for a drinking feast was traditionally associated with “community work.” The suggested path from “fence” and “pole” to “drinking” is hard to follow, even though, as we will see, drengr and drink may be related.

From fence to drink. Photo by Carms Onoya from Pexels.

Jan de Vries wrote, among many other books, etymological dictionaries of Modern Dutch and Old Icelandic, and, regrettably, he agreed with Trier in nearly all cases. About ten percent of his etymologies are from Trier. Hero worship was Jan de Vries’s most typical feature. In etymology, he followed Trier; in mythology, his god was George Dumézil, and in politics, unfortunately, Hitler. No one accepted this etymology of drink, but, since it appears in widely used dictionaries, it is well-known.

When a common Germanic word lacks a convincing pedigree, it is natural to recur to the substrate. The Indo-Europeans spread over a gigantic territory. At present, all the way from India to Norway, only the Finno-Ugric languages and Basque do not belong to the Indo-European family. Quite naturally, numerous indigenous words infiltrated the speech of the conquerors and therefore have no Indo-European etymology. Similarly, Latin became the language of the former Roman Empire and absorbed multiple native words. The problem with the Indo-European substrate is that we know nothing about the extinct languages, and saying that drink, for example, goes back to some such substrate is another way of saying that the origin we are trying to find is beyond recovery.

Also, why should the ancient speakers of Germanic give up such a basic word as drink? It has been suggested that the verb once belonged to the religious terminology of some of the pre-Indo-European peoples (so not just “drink,” but “drink on ceremonial occasions”). This is another arrow shot into the air: it falls to earth, but we know not where (however, see below). Equally unpromising is the comparison of drink with other dr-verbs, such as drip and drizzle. Those have secure etymologies and are not related to drinking. Perhaps the idea of drinking goes back to drawing, pulling, and so forth: compare to drink everything in one draft/draught, but the desired cognates are found only in Sanskrit and Baltic, and the underlying metaphor sounds rather feeble. In Germanic, the verb appears to be isolated. This is unfortunate, for drinking alone is not to be recommended.

Dry wine, an oxymoron. Image from Pixabay.

The idea of drinking may own something to the concepts of wetness and dryness. With regard to drink, both approaches have been tried. A somewhat similar word for “moist” occurs only in Baltic, but a cognate related to dryness may exist in Germanic. The Latin for “dry” is siccus (which we see in Engl. desiccate “to dry out”), while Latin sitis means “thirst.” The two words perhaps share the same root. Likewise, dry (from drūgiz) and drink (from drincan) may belong together, with n being an infix. This etymology of drink has been suggested by Viktor Levitsky, whose Germanic etymological dictionary appeared in Russian shortly before his death. His etymology is of course speculative (any etymology of drink is doomed to be such), but it looks realistic. The ancient root dher– occurs in words denoting hard, solid, durable things. One of the words with this root is Icelandic drengr “pole, pillar,” cited above in connection with Jost Trier’s reconstruction.

Thus, if we follow Levitsky, the path is not from “fence” to “pole” and further to “feast” and “drink,” but from “durability, hardness” to “dryness; thirst” and “drinking” as a way of fighting thirst. However, we don’t know whether drink first referred to quenching thirst or consuming an alcoholic beverage (hence the conjecture that our etymology may be sought for in some religious ceremony). French trinquer “to clink glasses” and Italian trincare “to guzzle” are both from German trinken “to drink.” Apparently, the German way of drinking impressed Romance-speaking people as worthy of imitation.

“Drought” comes from “dry.” Wait for the rain. Image by Gerhild Klinkow from Pixabay.

And now a postscript. Some verbs develop a strong bond. Thus, lay means to “to cause to lie” (never mind the fact of the old misuse of lay), and set means “to cause to sit.” Therefore, such verbs are called causative. But a small phonetic change and a shift in meaning may make this bond nearly impossible to detect. Thus, the causative of drink is drench, not exactly “to cause to drink.” Note also that the past participle of drink should have been drunken, but drunk and drunken have separated their functions in a rather subtle way (compare the sunk/sunken and shrunk/shrunken divide).

If the slogan in vino veritas “in wine (lives) the truth” has any foundation in reality, perhaps during this holiday season someone will come up with a truly watertight etymology of drink.

The Oxford Etymologist wishes everybody a Happy New Year! Enjoy a break in activities until January 8 but send questions and comments. When we meet again, the century will no longer be a teenager.

Feature image credit: Drinking song set to music, G Bickham, 1731. CC BY 4.0, via the Wellcome Collection.

Recent Comments

  1. Ellary

    Well I for one am totally into these hard-core elements of our language, and even though this was a bit of a snark hunt, it was a delightful jaunt! Thank you Anatoly!

  2. Anne

    Info-European really did spread. From Sri Lanka to Iceland.

    I wonder why. But yes, there must be many words borrowed from various non-IE languages.

    The Etruscans were elites who influenced Latin and its culture. Apparently we can blame the Etruscans for changing the Greek alphabet so much.

  3. Constantinos Ragazas


    It is interesting and perhaps relevant the Greek word “drosizo” (I quench) attested in ancient Greek texts also begins with “dr-“. Since to “quench” implies to “drink”.


  4. Rick Monaghan

    And a happy holiday to you as well. Have a dram for me.

  5. Yves Rehbein

    I think the stress should be on “no” for “in vino veritas”.

    Merry End of the Year Festivities!

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