Look, will you all stop misusing the word ‘ale’. Thank you

I realise I’m whistling into a gale here. But if you want an expression that will cover everything from Kölsch to porter, taking in saison, IPA, mild, Oud Bruin and Alt on the way, then it’s “warm-fermented beers”. Not “ale”. Please. Because if you use “ale” in a broad, ahistoric sense to mean “any beer made with top-fermenting yeast”, then you’re making my job harder than it should be.

Now, I know that “ale” has already changed its meaning over the centuries. Many words have suffered semantic drift as they travelled downriver towards today. My favourite changed word is “soon”, which originally meant “immediately”. You can see the same sort of slow alteration in meaning at work today on “presently”, which is heading the other way, with many people using “presently” to mean “now”, when it used to mean only “in a while”.

Among the many other words that no longer have the meanings they used to, there’s “decimate”, which was first used to mean “kill one in ten” but now (presently?) means a much looser “subject to considerable loss”; and “fulsome”, which originally meant “abundant, plentiful, full”, then “disgusting, repulsive, odious”, so that “fulsome praise” meant praise so greasily insincere it made observers sick. It has now been reanalysed by many to mean “effusive, enthusiastic”, producing much spitting from pedants, who will insist that this is incorrect, and that a “fulsome welcome” shouldn’t, properly, be welcomed at all.

So with “ale”, a word derived from the Old English alu, which once meant “unhopped malt liquor”, in contrast to the continental hopped bere that arrived in Britain in the 15th century. By the 18th century, brewers were adding at least some hops to everything, so that “ale” now meant “malt liquor that is hopped, but not as much as beer is”. Thus the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1773 defined the word “ale” as “a fermented liquor obtained from an infusion of malt and differing only from beer in having a less proportion of hops.”

It’s important, if you study the history of brewing, to know this, to know that porter was a beer, not an ale, because it was heavily hopped, that all the many varieties of ale brewed around Britain – Burton Ale, Windsor Ale, Dorchester Ale, and others – were called ale because they were lightly hopped, to know why recipes for pale ale and pale beer in 1773 could differ so much, with the pale ale only lightly hopped while the pale beer was stuffed with hopcones; and to know that the London ale brewers were a completely different set of people to the London porter brewers. (Spot the two terrible errors at that link, btw.)

It also means that you’ll have the knowledge to see ale and beer as the two great rivers, the Euphrates and Tigris, one originally unhopped and then only lightly so, the other hopped from the start and then increasingly hoppier over time, from which all British beer styles are derived. Mild and old ale sprang up alongside the River Ale: porter and stout along the River Beer. Eventually, of course, the Euphrates and the Tigris run together, and so did the Rivers Ale and Beer, at a place called Pale Ale, the name of a lightly hopped fermented malt drink in the 18th century which became the name of a heavily hopped drink in the 19th century, after the success of “pale ale as prepared for the India Market”.

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Words for beer (2) – was ‘beer’ originally cider?

Before we dive more fully into the tangled roots of the words “ale” and “beer”, we have to tackle one particularly knotted strand first, caused by the curious fact that, four hundred years before English adopted the word bier from the Continent to describe a malt liquor flavoured with hops (altering the spelling to “beere”), it already had a word beór that was used for an alcoholic drink. Around the time of the Norman invasion in the 11th century, however, beór disappeared from the English language.

(You might want to skip the rest of this blog entry, because it becomes a trifle word-nerdy, though it does range from Iceland to Babylon via Spain, and takes in gods, magical dwarfs and saints, and you’re more than welcome to stay.)

Most writers who touch the subject assert that beór, which is found much less frequently in old texts than the word that became “ale” in modern English, ealu in West Saxon (or alu in Anglian), was merely a synonym for ealu. They take their cue from the Oxford English Dictionary, which says, under its definition of “ale”, that “Ale and beer seem originally to have been synonymous.” To back up this claim the OED quotes from a poem called the Alvíssmál, or “Talk of Alvíss “, composed in the 11th or 12th centuries, probably in Iceland. This says (in Old Norse): “öl heitir með mönnum, en með Ásum bjórr,” that is, “‘ale’ it is called among men, and among the gods ‘beer’.”

But in fact this quote, (which the OED appears to have nicked straight from Bosworth and Toller’s Anglo-Saxon dictionary of 1882) although you’ll see it repeated regularly when the history of ale and beer in Anglo-Saxon times is discussed, doesn’t prove what the OED suggests it proves at all, that is, that öl and bjórr (ealu and beór in Old English) are synonyms, because the extract from the poem has been pulled totally out of context.

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Words for beer

There are four or five competing theories for the origin of the word “beer” and, frankly, none of them is particularly convincing.

The same is true of the word “ale”, as it happens: despite “ale” and its sisters, such as öl in Swedish and alus in Lithuanian, being found in languages from Britain to the Black Sea via the Baltic, no linguist has any good idea how it originated, with some of the ideas put forward being way out there in the unlikeliness ionosphere.

Of the four “great” families of words meaning “alcoholic drink made from malted grain”, however, we can be reasonably certain about the origins of the other two, the Slavonic “pivo” group and what might be called the “cerevisia” group, after the Latin word for “beer”. (Or, to be accurate, one of the Latin words for beer, since as well as the spelling we’re familiar with in the name of brewing yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the word also occurs in various Latin documents in the forms cervisia, cervesia, cervese, cervesa and cervisa.)

Taking this “cerevisia” group first, the Romans, who were wine drinkers rather than beer brewers, nicked their word for beer, in all its spellings, from speakers of a Celtic language. The original Proto-Celtic for “beer” was probably something like *kormi (that asterisk is the etymologist’s symbol indicating a word that has not been attested, but whose form can be worked out on the basis of later variants), going back to an earlier Proto-Indo-European word *kerm- (that dash means there was an ending on *kerm but we don’t know what that ending was.) *Kerm looks to be the root of a few other words in the Indo-European family, such as Russian korm, meaning “fodder,” an old Slavonic word krma, meaning “nourishment” or “food”, and Latin cremor, meaning “broth”, or “pap”.

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Binge drinking: a brief history

I love etymology. To binge, the Oxford English Dictionary reveals, was originally a Lincolnshire (and, it implies, East Midlands generally) dialect word meaning “to soak (a wooden vessel)”.

The metaphorical extension of meaning from soaking wood to soaking yourself was an easy journey, and by 1854 a book called A Glossary of Northamptonshire Words had recorded this figurative use for the word: “A man goes to the alehouse to get a good binge, or to binge himself.”

A dictionary of slang published in 1889 said of “binge” that it was used at Oxford to mean “a big drinking bout”. By the early 20th century the word was being used for parties at which large amounts of drink were consumed, with no particular sense that there was anything to criticise: the OED has a quote from 1922: “This is only a binge . . . just a jolly old bachelor-party.”

The word also took on secondary meanings, “to encourage”, and “to liven up”, as in a quote from the children’s novel National Velvet, published in 1935: “The information having been looked over and binged up here and toned down there . . . Reuter sent round the world the following message . . .”

It was probably from this sense of “livened up” that General (later Field Marshal Lord) Montgomery used to ask his officers in the Second World War: “Are you 100 per cent full of binge?”, according to The Times in 1942. Monty meant, apparently, were they full of spirit – zing – and confidence in their own ability and fitness, rather than whisky-ed up to the hairline. It was not a use that caught on.

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