The story behind the word 'whiskey', or 'whisky'. By English with Stephen

Word Stories: Water of Life

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode looking at the stories of ‘water of life’, including vodka and whiskey.

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Hello and welcome to English with Stephen, the podcast that helps you learn English as quickly as possible in under 10 minutes.

Today I have a word story for you. For new listeners, a word story episode is where I take a look at the history of a word, its origins, and how it has come to its current meaning.

And today, we are looking at ‘the water of life’. At least that is the English translation. You might be more familiar with the original Gaelic which is Uisge Betha. No, how about if I say whiskey? Does that help?

We’ll look at the origin of the word ‘whiskey’ after this short piece of music.

For today’s episode, I have lots of cool videos and images that I am sure you are going to enjoy, including a short film that I use with my students. If you would like to watch the videos, I will post links on my site I am sure you will enjoy the extra materials I have there, so please, if you have the time, go take a look.

Thousands of years ago, before there was any idea of England or English, the Romans had a phrase for any type of distilled wine: aqua vitae or ‘water of life’. The word aqua vitae was used all across the Roman Empire. And it still lives today in France with the drink eau de vie, in Scandinavia with akavit and in Poland with okowita.

In fact, in Poland and other eastern European countries, there is another, much more famous drink you might have heard of called ‘vodka’. Now, the word vodka comes from the Slavic language and literally means ‘little water’ and there is much debate about the origin of the word. Originally, ‘vodka’ referred to different types of liquid medicine, but over time it started to mean the alcoholic drink.

Nobody is entirely certain of the actual origin of the word ‘vodka’ but there is a convincing case that it came from the idea of the Latin aqua vitae or water of life. This is easy to imagine if the water was supposed to give you back your health when it was used as a medicine.

And this is where you get to our original drink from the beginning of this episode: whiskey. You see, in Gaelic, the name for whiskey is Uisge Betha which can be translated into… the water of life.

The theory is that because the Romans called all of their spirits aqua vitae, or the water of life, the celts decided to do the same thing. The Roman and the Celtic communities were long-time neighbours. Originally, the Celts lived all across central and western Europe and, while never a single, unified empire, controlled much more land than the Romans who started life in the south of Italy.

There were differences, of course. The Romans used grapes as the basis for most of their drinks, but whiskey uses grain. In fact, grain is used for both whiskey and beer and it was the lack of access to grapes that forced the peoples of central and northern Europe to develop beer and whiskey.

Also, there are two ways to spell ‘whiskey’. Generally, in the USA they spell it ‘whiskey’ and in the UK it is ‘whisky’. Now I am from the UK, but I spell it ‘whiskey’. Why should I do this?

Well the answer is that my family comes from Ireland and there they spell it the same as they do in the USA. The idea is that Irish makers of whiskey used the ‘e’ to distinguish their product from Scottish whisky. A lot of the early emigration to the USA came from Ireland, so the theory is that they took their spelling with them and gave it America.

Whiskey has been popular in Scotland and Ireland for hundreds of years, if not longer. However, at the beginning of the 1700s, there was something of an emergency for Scottish whisky. Scotland and England had recently united to form the United Kingdom and the new British government decided to impose a tax on unlicensed whisky distilleries. A distillery is the place where you make whiskey.

The problem with this tax was that it was very high, which meant that official whisky was too expensive for many local people. To avoid the tax, some people continued to make their own, illegal whiskey at night so that it was more difficult to see the smoke from the fires. This whiskey quickly got the nickname of ‘moonshine’.

After American independence, the American government also tried to tax whiskey distilleries and the same thing happened: local people made their own whiskey at night and it again got the nickname of moonshine.

A last word on whiskey. You are free to mix whatever you like with whiskey, but ideally, you would add nothing. There is nothing to beat a glass of whiskey on its own. There is no need for ice or water or, god forbid, coke! If the taste is a bit too strong then have a glass of water on the side, but mixing them destroys two great drinks.

That’s all from me today. It’s still a bit early for me to have a whiskey, but I’ll definitely have one later. When I do, I’ll raise a glass to all my listeners and say slainte which is Gaelic for cheers!

Don’t forget to go to my site to check out all the great images and videos I have for you. Bye bye!

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