March 15, 2016

Case File #016.03.15: BOOZE

According to a mere handful of etymologists and lexicographers, the English word booze first appeared as a noun around 1840, when American distiller EG Booz began selling bottled whiskey on which he pasted labels that prominently bore his own name. But don't be misled by that lot. While Booz's liquor label might have helped to reinforce the contemporary spelling of booze (both the verb and the noun forms), the roots of the word actually wind back much further than the nineteenth century. Most experts, in fact, believe that the verb came first (that is, before the noun appeared) in the form of the Middle English bousen, which meant “to drink intoxicating beverages, especially to excess” and was an Anglicized borrowing of the similarly defined Middle Dutch busen. Sometime after Middle English gave way to modern English in the late fifteenth century, the form of the English verb changed to bouse, the pronunciation of which was fairly close to that of the modern form of the word. And the word's noun sense, “an intoxicating drink, especially hard liquor,” finally came into use circa 1730, with the contemporary spelling of booze following suit in 1768—nearly seventy-five years before the aforementioned American distiller started gluing his name onto whiskey bottles—when Horace Walpole, Fourth Earl of Orford, used it in his correspondence with George Montagu.

©2016 Michael R. Gates