The Drunken Dictionary: etymology of cocktails (part I)

alembic_backbar

Cocktail culture in the U.S. (and in various countries around the world) has undergone an effervescent revival over the last ten or so years. Bartenders and drinkers in cities across America have become obsessed with rejuvenated classics – recipes from the 1870s through the 1950s – as well as with unique new creations, often featuring local ingredients and unusual spirits/liqueurs/spices/produce.

I took part in this crazy trend, bartending at whisk(e)y[1] and craft cocktail bars in San Francisco for seven years during grad school and after, as I tried to find a paying occupational home in linguistics. So it seems fitting that I write a piece or three blending these interests!

This post details the etymology of names for several popular whisk(e)y-based cocktails. Recipes for the drinks are also included. They’re based on those from my last bar, The Alembic (one of SF’s earliest craft cocktail establishments). A second post will cover gin-based beverages, and a third rum, brandy, vodka, and tequila concoctions.

The first print attestation for each cocktail name is taken from the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED is an incredible resource. Lexicographers have spent years transferring to digital format the Dictionary’s massive amounts of information. Heading the website’s About section: “600,000 words … 3.5 million quotations … over 1000 years of English”. The yearly subscription is expensive, but you may have access if you’re part of an academic (or business) institution. Check out a short version of the OED’s history on their website. And if you want more / are curious about initial creation of the Dictionary, I recommend this fun historical nonfiction book by Simon Winchester: “The Professor and the Madman”.

And now, down the boozy rabbit hole we go…

WHISK(E)Y

rubymanhattan_addisonberry_cropped      Manhattan

The name for this rye and sweet vermouth libation first appears in print in 1882 in Democrat (Olean, N.Y.):

“It is but a short time ago that a mixture of whiskey, vermouth and bitters came into vogue. It went under various names—Manhattan cocktail, Turf Club cocktail, and Jockey Club cocktail.”

Unsurprisingly, origin stories for the drink all point to a bar in New York – probably the Manhattan Club. Details beyond that are fuzzy, as things are wont to get when the brown spirit flows.

As for origins of the borough’s name, the OED shows first attested use in 1659. A “Manhattan” was “a member of a North American Indian people formerly inhabiting Manhattan Island, N.Y.” The word was borrowed from the Dutch Manathans, which in turn was borrowed from a native Munsee (Delaware) expression which meant something like “(where) one gathers bows”.

Recipe

  • Add to mixing glass then stir with ice:
    • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
    • 1 oz sweet vermouth (I recommend Punt e Mes or Carpano Antica)
    • 2 oz rye (I recommend High West Double Rye, Michter’s US*1, or Rittenhouse)
  • Strain into coupe/cocktail glass or rocks glass (add ice if desired)
  • Garnish with brandied cherry (avoid maraschino cherries!)

 

classic+old+fashioned_cropped      Old Fashioned

This delicious, simple drink is made with a bit of sugar, bitters, and bourbon or rye whiskey. It’s served on the rocks, often with a citrus garnish. The OED has an initial citing from 1878 in The Janesville Gazette (Wisconsin):

“I had to set up the wine; but I enjoy a quiet cocktail with a friend much better than all their hollow display. Let’s go down and get an old-fashioned drink all to ourselves.”

OED also has a note about its origin:

“The old-fashioned cocktail is said to have been invented in the late 19th cent. at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky. It was probably so named because of its similarity to early whisky cocktails.”

Wikipedia sources give further detail on the above account, saying that by the late 1800s, when liqueurs were being added to cocktails, the basic sans-liqueur recipes were dubbed “old-fashioned”.[2]

Recipe

  • Muddle small turbinado sugar cube with several dashes of water in rocks glass until sugar is mostly melted
  • 3-4 dashes Angostura bitters; swirl glass to mix
  • large cube of ice
  • 2 oz bourbon (I recommend Elijah Craig, Michter’s US*1, or Eagle Rare)
  • Stir several times in glass with bar spoon
  • Garnish by spritzing lemon or orange peel over top of glass to add its oils; add peel to drink

 

sazerac_juliemccalliard_cropped    sazerac_miqueldiscart_cropped      Sazerac

The OED’s first quote containing the term is from 1941, in Louisiana: Guide to State (Federal Writers’ Project):

“The most celebrated of New Orleans cocktails—the Sazerac—is a mixture of whisky, bitters, and sugar, served in a glass mixed with absinthe.”

However, as with the Manhattan, this mixed drink seems to have been created closer to the mid-1800s. Merchants in New Orleans were importing a cognac called Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils; around that time a local bar (which had just been renamed to Sazerac Coffee House) supposedly began selling a beverage made with the imported cognac and bitters from Antoine Amédée Peychaud, a nearby apothecary. The primary spirit switched to rye around 1870, after French vineyards were ruined by the phylloxera epidemic. When the U.S. banned absinthe in 1912, other anise-flavored liqueurs were used instead (Herbsaint being the New Orleans alternative).[3]

Recipe

  • In chilled rocks glass:
    • 4 dashes absinthe; add ice cube and swirl; dump cube
  • Add to mixing glass then stir with ice:
    • 4 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
    • 0.25 oz simple syrup
    • 2 oz rye (I recommend High West Double Rye, Michter’s US*1, or Rittenhouse); alternatively, you can use brandy (cognac or armagnac)
  • Strain into chilled, absinthe-rinsed rocks glass
  • Garnish by spritzing lemon peel over top of glass to add its oils; add peel to drink

 

[1] Why “whisk(e)y”? Because Americans (with their bourbons and ryes), Irish, and a few other nationalities spell their products as whiskey with the ‘e’, while the Scots, Canadians, and Japanese spell their spirits whisky.
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Fashioned#cite_note-5
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sazerac#History

*Photo attributions: Manhattan section – “Ruby Manhattan” by Addison Berry; Old Fashioned section – “Classic Old Fashioned Recipe” at Whiskey + Honey; Sazerac section – “Tales of the Cocktail Sazerac workshop” by Julie McGalliard and “NOLA 2018” by Miguel Discart.

Koko and animal “language”

Can animals have language the way humans have language? From recent news headlines about a famous ape and her passing, one might conclude: yes. Titles such as “Koko: Gorilla who mastered sign language dies in California” and “Koko, the Gorilla Who Knew Sign Language, Dies at 46” imply that non-human primates, at least, can learn and use language as humans do. So once again I’d like to call the media out on their frustrating inaccuracy.[1]

From the BBC (first article linked above):

“Koko the gorilla, who is said to have been able to communicate by using more than 1,000 hand signs, has died in California at the age of 46. Instructors taught her a version of American Sign Language and say she used it to convey thoughts and feelings. […] The gorilla […] could understand 2,000 words of spoken English.”

From NBC (older article linked to second one above):

“In 2001, Williams visited the Gorilla Foundation in Northern California, where he met Koko, a gorilla who is fluent in American sign language”

By choosing words like master and know and fluent, journalists are misinforming readers (whether this is intentional or out of ignorance, I’m not sure). There are many differences between how Koko understood and used language and how humans understand and use it. Two obvious areas jump to mind: (1) vocabulary size; and (2) ease of learning. Regarding point one – adult native English speakers know between 270% – 500% more words than Koko[2]. A 2016 study found that 20-year-olds were able to identify an average of 42,000 lemmas (dictionary headwords, e.g. run for run, runs, ran, and running). The lowest 5% of the population in the study recognized 27,100 lemmas, and the highest 5% understood 51,700.[3] While I couldn’t find numbers for American Sign Language (ASL) speakers, I assume they would not be too far from the numbers for speakers of English. (Most ASL speakers are bilingual anyway, since they have learned English to read and interact with non-signers.)

As for point two, the ease of learning – Koko had to be explicitly instructed over many years. Human children acquire a relatively complete grammar within about 5-8 years of being born, and they do this even in the absence of active teaching.

More generally, major properties of human language which distinguish it from animal communication are:

  1. Arbitrariness – the relationship between sounds/signs and their meanings is random.
    • Ex.: There’s no reason for why the sound sequence cat has to mean those furry purring domesticated felines.
  2. Productivity/Creativity – people can understand and create an unlimited number of new utterances.
    • Ex. 1: Novel sentences. I bet you’ve never heard the following, although you can easily understand its meaning.
      • Her pet squid squirted aquamarine ink all over the plaid sofa.
    • Ex. 2: Endless modifiers (adjectives, adverbs, etc.).
      • I thought he was really, really, really, really, really, very, super, exceedingly funny.
    • Ex. 3: Subordinate clauses (the below is one type, called a relative clause).
      • This is the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.
  3. Discreteness – human languages are composed of distinct units that combine according to grammatical rules to create meaning.
    • Ex.: Cat is made up of the phonemes /k/ + /æ/ + /t/; cats is made up of the morphemes cat + -s (pluralizes nouns); and on and on into larger and larger units.
  4. Displacement – we have the capacity to talk or sign about things unrelated to “the here and now” (the present space and time).
    • Ex. 1: When he was little he loved turtles.
    • Ex. 2: If I could do anything, I’d become an astronaut and travel to Mars.

Of course, animal communication has been shown to exhibit one or two of the above properties in specific contexts; you may have heard about such research on bird song, bee dances, and the communicative systems of elephants, bats, dolphins, squids, and apes. But at this point we don’t have evidence to suggest that any non-human form of communication displays all of these aspects simultaneously, or to the extent that human language does. That’s not to say that informational exchanges between other species aren’t complex. And this post is not meant to detract from Koko’s life or death. She and her trainers taught us invaluable things about the depth of gorilla intelligence and emotionality. Certainly, as we learn more about how various species communicate, we may need to update our definition of “language”. We’re just not there yet.

 

[1] The widely-read Language Log also posted on this topic, taking a similar stance: The (Non-) Evolution of language
[2] I won’t get into how “word” is defined, since that by itself would be a very long post.
[3] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01116/full

Foreign accent syndrome and speech understanding

Maybe you’ve heard about people who, due to a stroke or accident, can no longer speak or understand speech normally. Aphasia is a condition where damage (usually from stroke or head trauma) to particular regions of the brain causes a person to lose specific language production and comprehension abilities. Aphasia studies are remarkable, and have taught us much about how language works inside the brain. Recently, however, I learned of a strange condition kind of similar to, but not as debilitating as aphasia: Foreign accent syndrome.

Here’s the article: The curious case of people who can’t stop speaking in foreign accents.

You should read the full piece, but a few highlights follow.

“Foreign accent syndrome (FAS for short) is a real thing, though it’s very rare — fewer than 200 cases diagnosed since it was first described in 1907. It may sound like it’s just a delusion or fantasy, but fewer than 10 percent of cases have a psychological basis (for example, related to schizophrenia). Nearly all of the rest are of neurological origin: They are caused by damage or impairment to a specific area of the brain.”

“The short explanation is that FAS (possibly excepting the few psychological cases) is a disorder of speech planning and execution.”

“Naturally, when we hear speech tweaked on one or several of those parameters, we associate it with an accent that has a similar feature set. And if we hear an accent that sounds somehow different but we’re not sure, we make our best guess at what it is. The less familiar we are with an accent, the less we’re likely to notice things that aren’t quite right about it: Many Americans can’t tell Australian accents from English ones even though people from England and Australia have no trouble telling the two apart. Researchers studying cases of FAS have sometimes tested samples of the speech with listeners who didn’t know its origin to see if they could identify where it was from, and, unsurprisingly, opinions varied considerably. But when they tested “controls” — samples of native speakers with unimpaired speech from several countries — listeners couldn’t always identify their accents accurately either.”

Videos of people with FAS:

Texan woman with “British English” accent
English woman with “Chinese” accent

What does the author mean by feature set in the quote above? Each language has its own unique set of phonemes or word-distinguishing units of sound (called its phonemic inventory). This set is pulled from a larger set of all possible speech sounds. We recognize different languages and accents by these feature sets. And yet, the FAS article had me thinking about our general ineptitude when it comes to identifying accents. Because the speech of the person with FAS in the first video is close enough to a British English accent from an American English point of view, we lump it in that category…while to a native British English speaker, they’re noticeably dissimilar. Even in our native accent, speech can be hard to disambiguate. The recent viral “Laurel/Yanny” debate is a good example.

“Laurel”/“Yanny” makes you wonder how we understand each other at all. I’d say that pragmatics, i.e. context, plays a vital role. When communication is stripped of context, it’s significantly more difficult to interpret. My current work has made this very clear to me. We’re listening to and transcribing 2-to-4-second audio clips of users’ commands (and other speech) to their smartphone voice assistants. Knowing the contexts of “voice assistant-directed speech” and “things one might want to do on their phone” helps some. But outside of that, because the sound clips are so short and we’re not actually there, interacting with the speaker, a part of the conversation – it’s often a challenge to resolve (i.e. accurately transcribe) certain categories of words. Proper nouns are especially tricky. Contacts’ names, product or app names, names of unfamiliar towns and musicians, et cetera.  If we were face-to-face with the speaker, we’d have the entire conversational, situational, and interpersonal background at our disposal, which helps resolve such unknowns. Successful communication must rely on many factors. And language doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

Of Kanji and Kana

jap_fabric_writing

The Japanese writing system, like other aspects of Japanese culture, is complicated and fascinating. Its three main character sets are a notorious struggle for second-language learners and young native speakers alike. While many tongues have what is called synchronic digraphia (where two or more writing systems for the same language coexist), Japanese is famous for having three main character sets within one single writing system.[1] Of interest to linguistics-minded folks, these three character sets systematically express different areas of the language’s grammar (word classes, for instance). Below is my attempt at a fun, informative introduction to the system.

The three main character sets of Japanese are kanji, hiragana, and katakana.

漢字 | KANJI

Kanji characters are logographic, meaning they cannot be spelled (sounded) out, but instead must be memorized whole. As many know, they were taken from the Chinese writing system. The term kanji literally means “Chinese characters”. If you’ve ever complained about the obtuse nature of English orthography, or remember the pain of memorizing weird word spellings as a child, consider this: a Japanese person of average education knows (i.e. has memorized) about three thousand kanji. Dictionaries contain about ten thousand kanji.[2]

Kanji are used for content words – nouns, verb stems, adjective stems, adverbs, personal names and place names. They’re composed of radicals, graphical pieces that often have either a semantic or phonetic quality (they indicate part of the meaning or the sound of the character, respectively). There is a particular stroke order for each character, which everyone is expected to follow when writing. And as if all that wasn’t enough of a challenge, there are also two separate pronunciations – on’yomi and kun’yomi – that depend on context or conjugation.

Here are some examples of kanji:

東京 – Tokyo (place name)                                   長谷川 – Hasegawa (surname)

薔薇 – bara (a noun, means “rose”)

違う – chigau (a verb or adjective, means “to be wrong” or “wrong”. Only the first character, the verb stem, is kanji; the second character, or conjugation, is hiragana)

Kana characters include the two sets hiragana and katakana. They’re both phonetic, meaning they can be sounded out. Kana also originally came from Chinese, but the characters are so altered and simplified that their sources are not apparent today. Japan adopted Chinese writing in the third century, and ran into trouble since the two spoken languages were completely unrelated. They began using characters not for their meanings, but for their sound values only. Both modern-day kana sets have an inventory of 46 characters (along with two types of diacritics), and these constitute a syllabary[3] of consonant-vowel pairings.

ひらがな | HIRAGANA

Hiragana has rounded symbols, smooth curves. The hiragana syllabary is used for native words, and grammatical elements like particles, auxiliary verbs, and inflections (e.g. verb conjugations, noun suffixes). Japanese children’s books are mostly in hiragana since younger kids haven’t yet learned many kanji. When books do include kanji, they have small furigana by the side – hiragana or katakana to help with pronunciation.

Here are some examples of hiragana:

               ありがとう – arigatou (“thank you”)                ください – kudasai (“please”)

               です – desu (auxiliary verb, “is”)                           の, は, を – no, wa, o (particles)

カタカナ | KATAKANA

With katakana, you’ll notice similarities to hiragana, but the symbol shapes are clearly more angular. Katakana is used for foreign names and words, loanwords, onomatopoeia, and emphasis.

Here are some examples of katakana:

アメリカ – amerika (foreign name, “America”)

サラリーマン – sararii man (“salary man”, i.e. office worker)

テレビ – terebi (loanword, “television”)

ニャンニャン – nyan nyan (onomatopoeia, sound of cat meowing)

* * * * *

The Japanese system has TWO directions for writing: vertical (tategaki), and horizontal (yokogaki). Vertical is the traditional form, running from top to bottom, right to left on the page. Books written with vertical text open the opposite way from Western language books. Horizontal is the direction Western language readers are used to – left to right on the page. This Western style is used in more modern applications, like websites. To maximize space, newspapers, magazines, and signs frequently use both directions![4] Then, because we still haven’t juggled enough variables, Japanese text doesn’t include spaces between words, so readers must infer based on context where divisions are to be made.

Cool Japanese literature tangent: The Tale of Genji (源氏物語 – Genji Monogatari), written by noblewoman Lady Murasaki Shikibu in the early 11th century, is frequently considered the world’s first novel or first modern novel.

I’ll leave you with some marvelously idiosyncratic Japanese words and concepts, for which there are definitely no concise words/phrases in English. You can observe how the three character sets interact in various ways. (Most of the words come from this site).

Enjoy!

Japanese Pronunciation     (in rōmaji) Character set(s) Definition Literal meaning
教育ママ kyouiku mama kanji + katakana A mother who is obsessed with her children’s education
バーコード人 baakoudo jin katakana + kanji Men with ridiculous comb-overs “barcode people”
横飯 yoko meshi kanji Western food “horizontal rice”
侘寂 wabi-sabi kanji An aesthetic that sees beauty in the ephemerality and imperfection of things both natural and manmade
ぽかぽか poka poka hiragana Feeling warm throughout one’s body
口寂しい kuchi sabishii kanji + hiragana When you’re not hungry but you eat anyway “mouth lonely”
猫糞 neko baba kanji To steal/pocket and pretend innocence “cat feces”
ありがた迷惑 arigata meiwaku hiragana + kanji “An act someone does for you that you didn’t want to have them do and tried to avoid having them do, but they went ahead anyway, determined to do you a favor, and then things went wrong and caused you a lot of trouble, yet in the end social conventions required you to express gratitude”[5]

 

[1] I say three “main” character sets because there are actually more, if you count Arabic numerals, rōmaji (i.e. the Roman alphabet), punctuation, etc. Also, this person argues that the focus on three+ character sets in Japanese is silly and that English and other writing systems have multiple sets as well (capital and lowercase letters in English, for example), but in order to keep things succinct here, I didn’t go into that level of detail. Additionally, I disagree with them that capital vs. lowercase Roman letters possess the same grammatical significance as kanji/hiragana/katakana and so it’s not an apples to apples comparison.

[2] https://nihongoichiban.com/2011/05/24/the-japanese-writing-system/

[3] Where each symbol represents a syllable.

[4] See this nice article with lots of illustrative pictures.

[5] https://sobadsogood.com/2012/04/28/25-words-that-simply-dont-exist-in-english/