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Thesaurus Day: How Alcohol Got Its Nicknames

What’s in a name? Well, if talking about alcohol, you just might find a little “sauce,” some “booze,” or even some “hair of the dog.” Indeed, there are about as many other nicknames, slang terms — in other words, words — for alcoholic beverages as there are types of alcoholic beverages. They originate in countries and traditions around the world, much like the English language itself.
“The thing I like about this group of words is how euphemistic the words often are,” said Julia Cresswell, author of the Little Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins and an expert in the history of languages — especially as they relate to cultural history. “It’s well known that ‘whisk(e)y’ comes [from] Gaelic uisge (beatha), ‘water(of life)’, while ‘vodka’ is ‘little water’ from [the] Russian vod, but even the carafe you get your wine in comes ultimately from [the] Arabic garafa, ‘to draw water.’
Monday, January 18, is Thesaurus Day, a great opportunity to kick back with your favorite “hooch” or “nightcap,” and explore where some of the most common words and phrases used for the hard stuff come from. Cheers, down the hatch, or bottoms up!

Aqua Vitae: How Alcohol Got Its NicknamesThe origins of this nickname, which means “water of life” in Latin, is shrouded in a magic and mystery. It dates back thousands of years to Roman-occupied Europe. It is believed to have been used by Christian monks to refer both to a strong distillate of wine and herbs and the waters used for baptism. According to the monks (who no doubt sampled the drink) aqua vitae had powerful, mystical qualities. (And let’s face it, who can disagree with such a notion while enjoying a glass of a favorite spirit?) The desire to improve and refine aqua vitae led to its involvement with alchemy and longstanding association with other distilled beverages such as whiskey (itself rooted in the Gaelic phrase “water of life”), and brandy.
How Alcohol Got Its NicknamesBooze: The term “booze” is often thought to have originated with Edmund G. Booz, a 19th century distiller based in Philadelphia, but the word was being used in English to describe alcoholic beverages several hundred years earlier. Back then it was written as “bouse,” and historians believe the term to Dutch or Germanic in origin. “I’ve always been fond of the word ‘booze’ because it came into the language in the 13th century,” said Cresswell of the word. “[It] has always been non-standard, but still usable in a slangy way — which is unusual in words as they usually move up or down the social scale.” To put it another way, while words most commonly acquire more or less formal meanings over time, “booze” has pretty much stayed the same. That old Mr. Booz sold his original “Old Cabin Whisky” in a custom cabin-shaped bottle called – you guessed it – “the Booz bottle” made by Whitney Glassworks in Glassboro, N.J. was pretty much coincidence.
How alcohol got its nicknamesDead/Wounded Soldier: This phrase, long heard at keggers, frat parties, and in bars across the Garden State and beyond, was born in the U.S. at the start of the 20th century. Its first recorded use was by U.S. Infantrymen preparing to fight the Germans during World War I. Typical of the dark humor of the time, the soldiers used the term “dead soldier” to refer to empty beer bottles that remained after a night of drinking, in the way of fallen comrades after a firefight. Unfinished drinks were called “wounded soldiers,” and it was considered dishonorable to leave an injured comrade on the battlefield. In modern drinking culture, it’s still considered somewhat of a faux pas to leave unfinished alcohol on the bar.
How Alcohol Got Its NicknamesHair of the Dog (that Bit You): This phrase is rooted in folk medicine and fables. As far back as the days of ancient Greece, its meaning was quite literal: To speed healing after being bitten by a mad dog, ingest a bit of hair from that very same dog. The use of dog hair as a cure for drunkenness appears in an ancient Syrian text as a recipe for a god suffering from a hangover after a wild night of drinking. A few centuries later, the phrase had made its way to Gaelic Europe, specifically what we know as England and Scotland today, and was being used to describe the practice beating a hangover by drinking a bit more of whatever you enjoyed the previous night. The logic, of course, was that although alcohol is the cause of the hangover, (just as the dog is the cause of the bite), a smaller portion of the drink will act as a cure. However, from ancient Greece to today there’s no scientific evidence that a “hair of the dog” actually works. Instead, doctors recommend lots of fluids and a healthy meal to help kick a hangover.
How Alcohol Got Its NicknamesHooch: This word, popular among bootleggers during Prohibition, first came into use during the late 1860s, shortly after the land that is now Alaska was sold from Russia to the U.S. It is short for hoochinoo, a word used by the Tlingit (an indigenous people from Alaska) to refer to a fermented beverage made from dried fruit or berries, yeast, and molasses, according to Alaska Hooch: The History Of Alcohol In Early Alaska by Thayne Andersen. After fermenting, the mixture was strained and consumed, or most commonly, distilled into a harsh-tasting drink with quite a kick. The taste was too strong, in fact, for the missionaries and officials who grew up on fine wines and brandies. They called hoochinoo a “vile substance,” and blamed the beverage (as well as the native peoples who named it) for “wild and terrible” behavior – an unfortunate perpetuation of one stereotype about Native Americans that persists even today. Writes Andersen: “It is likely that the term vile was a moral judgment of the drinker as much as an accurate description of the actual taste, because ‘everyone drank it.'” In time, hoochino was shortened to “hooch” and came to refer to any homemade, strong, and especially unpleasant-tasting alcoholic drink. These days, “hooch” is widely used to refer to any distilled alcoholic beverage.
How Alcohol Got Its NicknamesMoonshine: Pop culture historians often mistakenly credit the birth of “moonshine” to the illegal corn whisky made in the southeastern U.S. However, the term originally came from England. It was used to refer to a “white brandy” smuggled into the country along the coastal regions of Kent and Sussex, according to a 1785 edition of the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. The smugglers, who usually worked by the light of the moon, were called “moonrakers,” and their wares soon came to be known as “moonshine” liquor. Over the next hundred years or so, the term migrated to the southern U.S. along with scores of English immigrants, where it found a new home. By the mid-1800s, increasingly heavy liquor taxes and a nascent Temperance movement were forcing distillers to operate underground. When Prohibition took off, the term cemented itself into American consciousness as a reference to a clear distilled whisky, or any kind of hooch.
How Alcohol Got Its NicknamesNightcap: This term got its start easy enough. Initially it referred to a cap or bonnet that one put on just before bed to stay warm in the days before central heating. One of the term’s earliest references in English is found in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale. However, its use as a nickname for a stiff drink – typically brandy, bourbon, or Irish cream — taken before bed was not recorded until 1818, when it appeared his cookbook of Apicius Redivivus, or The Cook’s Oracle, by William Kitchiner, the English doctor who supposedly created the first recipe for potato chips. (Perhaps he wanted a snack to go with that nightcap?) Today, despite the nightcap’s place in popular culture, doctors advise against a drink before bed, as alcohol can shorten or disrupt sleep.

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