April 25, 2013

Case File #013.04.25: WHISKEY

The earliest form of the English word whiskey (or whisky for you Brits) was iskie bae, which appeared circa 1585. It was derived from the Gaelic usige beatha, which means “whiskey” but literally translates as “water of life.” By around 1700, the English iskie bae had become the single word usquebea (sometimes spelled usquebaugh), and by 1715, it had been completely Anglicized to whiskie. There is a bit of a dispute over the dating of the modern spelling with the y ending, as some etymologists claim the form appeared as early as 1746, while others say it occurred around sixty years later. But regardless of which claim is true, there is no doubt that there were English speakers getting soused on something specifically called whiskey (or whisky) by at least the mid-nineteenth century. Now, for you lovers of libations who might take a little smug delight in the fact that the original Gaelic term for whiskey translates as “water of life,” I offer this final note: during the European settlement of the Americas, Native Americans often called the white man's whiskey either fire water, a reference to the unpleasant burning sensation one often feels while drinking it, or stupid water, a reference to the way some people behave after drinking it.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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