Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
It’s no feat of mystical divination to predict that a lot of people will find themselves intoxicated this weekend, many of them on green beer. St. Patrick’s Day is this Sunday, and many will use the commemoration of the Irish saint — whether they are Irish or not — as an excuse to lift a pint or nine.
But while Catholicism gave us St. Patrick, and Irish Americans honed his feast day to the celebration it is now, the intoxication that results from that celebration comes, at least etymologically, from warring Greeks.
The ancient Greek archer’s tool of war was the toxon, a word for both bow and arrow. To make their weapon deadlier, archers dipped their arrow tips in poison. Toxikon was the word for a poison-tipped arrow, but over time, the word came to refer to the poison itself. By the time the word was adopted into Latin as toxicum, it had shrugged off its ballistic origins and just meant “poison.”
Fast-forwarding through the Middle Ages, the word entered French and eventually evolved, in the 17th century, into the English word toxic. But while this word was wending its way through lexical evolution, English wasn’t just sitting around waiting to get poisoned. Surprisingly, the word intoxicate appears in English written records a century before toxic does. English speakers, it seems, sought a larger vocabulary for getting drunk than for ingesting toxins.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Shakespeare used intoxicate (though he certainly didn’t invent the word), in The Life of King Henry V (Act IV, Scene vii), believed to have been written in 1599:
Alexander, … in his rages, and all his furies, and his wraths, and his cholers, and his moods, and his displeasures, and his indignations, and also being a little intoxicates in his prains, did, in his ales and his angers, look you, kill his pest friend, Cleitus.
[Captain Fluellen, the Welshman who provides much if this play’s comic relief, often pronounces his bs as ps, so prains and pest are brains and best deliberately mispronounced for effect.]
The verb intoxicate and its adjective form, intoxicated, derive from the Latin intoxicare “to poison,” which itself traces back to the same Greek toxon. There is some evidence that intoxicate, in its earliest use, literally meant “to poison,” but it didn’t take long before the more metaphorical meaning “to make drunk” took hold.
So if you are among the imbibers during this weekend’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, relish in the etymological poignancy of that old bartender’s question, “What’s your poison?” And if you’re doing shots of good Irish whiskey, take a moment to remember the type of shots Greek archers took centuries ago that ultimately led to your ability to become intoxicated.
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Recently, the Indiana House and Senate voted to overturn the state’s long-standing law banning Sunday sales of alcohol, a statute that has been a thorn in the side of football game watchers and weekend wine sippers, as well as an unwelcome surprise for the thousands of out-of-town guests attending the always-on-a-Sunday Indianapolis 500.
The Indiana vote comes on the heels of the 85th anniversary of the twenty-first amendment, which was ratified in January 1933. It repealed the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed the production, transport, and sale of alcohol. But it also recognized the rights of states and municipalities to pass their own laws limiting alcohol use.
What has resulted is a wild assortment of laws that govern everything from signage to serving moose. Here are some of the more interesting state laws concerning alcohol.
- No serving of alcohol to animals in Tuscaloosa’s public parks
- No sale of liquor bottle with labels showing “a person posed in an immoral or sensuous manner”
- No intoxication is permitted in bars.
- No serving of liquor to moose in Fairbanks.
- No intoxicated customer may remain in an establishment longer than 30 minutes.
- No horseback riding while intoxicated.
- No 64-ounce growlers can be sold at craft breweries that produce more than 2,000 kegs a year.
- No Ladies’ Nights in Columbus.
- No sale of cold beer at grocery stores or gas stations.
- No bar tabs unless covered by a credit card.
- No happy hour.
- No signs in bars with the words “free” “discount” “unlimited” or “jumbo” before the word “drink.”
- No sale of more than two drinks to a customer at any one time.
- No encouragement of drinking games at bars.
- No sale of beer unless soup is being cooked.
- No physical contact between bar owners or bar employees and customers: no kissing, fondling, etc.
- No personalized license plate will be sold to drivers with a DUI on their record.
- No serving of beer with pretzels.
- No free drinks from bartenders for your birthday, holiday or other celebration.
- No alcohol can be given to fish.
- No sale of refrigerated (colder-than-room-temperature) beer above 3.2% alcohol by weight or 4% by volume.
- No licensed establishment can serve liquor without also serving at last five different food items.
- No sale of liquor except in state-run liquor stores. Beer can be sold in privately owned stores, but only in cases. Bars, bottle shops, and grocery stores can sell 192 ounces or less of beer.
- No sale of more than two six packs at a time.
- No alcohol bottle labels with designs incorporating the U.S. flag, the Texas flag, or armed forces.
- No sale of cocktails at Houston’s drive-in cocktail bars unless a piece of tape is placed over the straw opening on the lid.
- No more than three sips of beer are allowed while the drinker is standing.
- No sale of double drinks.
- No advertising of alcohol with references to Santa Claus, Easter, or Mother’s Day.
- No intoxicated skiing.