The story behind the words of the ingredients in gin and tonic. By English with Stephen

The Word Stories of Gin and Tonic

This is the transcript for the Learning English with Stephen podcast episode on the stories behind the ingredients of gin and tonic.

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Hello, my name’s Stephen Greene, and welcome to Learning English with Stephen. I have mentioned before that I live in Curitiba in the south of Brazil. At the moment, spring has just arrived and that means it is getting warmer. And that is the perfect excuse to have one of my favourite drinks to cool down after a hard day’s teaching: a gin and tonic.

To make a great gin and tonic, you need 5 ingredients: gin, tonic water, lime, ice, and a herb called rosemary. And today, we are going to look at the history of these five words.

The etymology of a drink!

That is after some music.

Before we start talking about gin and tonic, I’d like to remind you that you can find the transcript to this episode at my site As we talked about in the last episode, a transcript can be extremely helpful for learning a second language. As well as the transcript, you will also find links to my youtube channel, my Facebook page, and information on how you can have online classes with me. All of that is at

And now, back to a history of gin and tonic.

Nowadays, gin is strongly associated with England, and especially London. However, it was not invented in England at all. Its story is a long and interesting one that involves politics, religion, revolution, war, and economics. While the story is fascinating, I do not have the time to tell the complete story here.

However, I can tell you that the name ‘gin’ is an abbreviation of the word ‘genever’. No, this is nothing to do with the city in Switzerland whose English name is also Geneva. Instead, ‘geneva’ was the Dutch word for the berry ‘juniper’. This berry is commonly used in many gin recipes to give it a flavour, and so when the drink arrived in England with the William of Orange in 1689 the Dutch word was quickly shortened to the current ‘gin’.

The second ingredient is tonic water. Now, ‘tonic’ has many meanings; for example in linguistics when we talk about the syllable that is the longest in a word we call it the ‘tonic stress’. The origin of the word is Greek, where it described the stretching of the muscles. In English, in the 17th century, the word ‘tonic’ started to mean a way of keeping the muscles healthy by stretching them. Not long after, ‘tonic’ came to mean anything that was good for your health, and we can still use it in this sense today.

In the 1800s, companies started to sell a drink that they claimed was good for digestion and stimulated your appetite. They called this drink ‘tonic water’. The reason it was supposed to be good for your health was that one of the ingredients came from a tree and was called quinine.

In India, quinine was a traditional medicine used against mosquitoes. Mosquitoes carry malaria, so it was important for Britain because at that time there were a lot of British soldiers occupying India and at risk of catching malaria. The problem was that quinine has a very bitter taste, so they needed something to mix with it and the answer was…gin. And so gin and tonic was born as a way of encouraging British soldiers to drink quinine and protect them from malaria.

Of course, the best gin and tonic also has a lot of ice to help you cool down. It is more than likely that the British soldiers did not have a regular supply of ice, but we do. ‘Ice’ is an Old English word which probably originates from proto-German. Originally, the spelling was different because it was just ‘is’, but some reason this was changed in the 15th century to its current ‘ice’ which makes it look more French.

There is nothing very exciting about the history of the word ‘ice’ as many words come to English from proto-German. The final ingredient in my perfect gin and tonic, however, has arrived via a much longer journey.

A lime is a green citrus fruit, not to be confused with a lemon which is yellow and also tastes great in a gin and tonic. So, lime comes to English from either the Spanish lima or Portuguese limão. But they didn’t invent the word. They probably got the word from the Persians, where there is a fruit was called limun. But the journey of this fruit did not start there. It is thought that the fruit, and the word, comes from the Malay language where it was originally limaw. The idea is that through trade both the fruit and the word spread around the world.

Finally, we come to our herb? Rosemary. In Old English, this herb was called rosmarine and came from Latin Rosmarinus. Marine means the sea and can be found in many other English words like marina, aquamarine, and marinate. The first part of the word, ros mean ‘dew’. Dew is the water you see on plants first thing in the morning, even if it hasn’t rained. The theory is that this herb was commonly found near the sea and that was how it got its name.

So those are the ingredients, and the stories behind those ingredients, of one of my favourite summer drinks. Do you have a drink you love to help you cool down? Let me know and I’ll see if I can find one to experiment with.

Before you go, I have some homework for you. Please make sure you subscribe to this podcast on your favourite podcast provider. If you don’t have a podcast provider it is pretty easy to find one. Lots of people use Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google podcasts, but there are hundreds of others and all of them are free. If you subscribe it means you will never miss another episode and it is easier for other people to find me in the future.

Thanks a lot for listening, and cheers!

A tall glass of gin and tonic with lots of ice and lemon on a black background. Text: The word stories of gin and tonic. The origin of the phrase 'gin and tonic' by English with Stephen
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