Friday, May 2, 2014

Etymological Investigations: From Alcohol to Firewater

Since it's Friday, the most popular night of the week for people to have a drink in celebration of the end of the work week and the start of the weekend, we thought we'd look at the etymology of various terms for alcohol. Clearly we have celebrations on the mind, since our last Etymological Investigations post looked at synonyms for the word "party". That said, we would like to note that it is entirely possible to have a fun-filled celebratory weekend without alcohol!

To start, let's look at the origins of the word alcohol. It started out as the Arabic world al-kuhul, which referred to kohl, a metallic powder used in cosmetics to darken the eyelids for a visual effect. It made its way into English from Latin.

Liquor originally referred to "any matter in a liquid state" and started out as the Latin term liquorem before becoming licor in Old French, and then finally the word we use today. It was first used to talk about "fermented or distilled drink" around the 1300s.

Now that's some firewater!
Alcohol and liquor are the most frequently used traditional terms for this type of drink, but there are far more interesting terms out there, ready to be used. Booze is a popular choice, and came to English from the Middle Dutch term busen, meaning "to drink heavily", sometime around the 1700s.

Hooch and moonshine aren't popular terms anymore, but they certainly had their heyday. Hooch is a shortened form of the word Hoochinoo, a type of liquor made by a native tribe in Alaska. Apparently, the liquor was popular with miners who worked during the 1898 Klondike gold rush, and a new term for "cheap whiskey" was born. Moonshine, on the other hand, originally referred to "moonlight", but became a popular term for illicit liquor in the late 1700s.

In the UK, bevvy is often used to refer to alcohol. You could probably guess that it's a shortened form of the word "beverage". It evolved from the Latin verb bibere which later became French boire, meaning "to drink". Sometimes alcohol is also called juice, which we imagine was originally used as a way to pretend you were drinking something else entirely. Its alcoholic connotation dates back to the early 1800s. 

Finally, when it comes to fun-sounding terms for alcohol, we think that sauce and firewater take the cake. When it's called sauce, it's generally when telling someone to cut back on alcohol, as in "you need to lay off the sauce". This slang use dates back to 1940. The term firewater is much older, dating back to the early 1800s, and is said to come from a Native American term, possibly from the Ojibwe or Chippewa tribe, that combined the words "fire" and "water" in reference to alcohol.

Have we missed your favorite term for alcohol? Let us know in the comments below.