Word of the Day: beer

Word of the Day: beer September 8, 2013


Word of the Day: beer

“Hey Matty, hey Matty,” said the football player down the hall to his groggy roommate, “what’s all this beeah on the flooah?”  I was a freshman at Princeton, and it was the first time I’d ever heard a Rhode Island accent in all its glory.

We don’t know where the word beer comes from.  We think we know where the stuff itself comes from: ancient Mesopotamia.  Think about it.  Would you really want to drink the runoff in the canals and standing pools from the sluggish Tigris and Euphrates?  The beer was clean.  And, like wine, it gladdened the heart, back in the days before people drove cars too fast and gladdened the vultures.  I’m told that it was thick foamy stuff which people would drink through reeds from a common tub.  Some things never change!

The word was beor in Anglo Saxon, but my favorite form of it comes from Bede’s history of the English church: gebeorscip: beership, feast, pronounced ye-BEH-or-ship.  That’s what the men were having in one of the out-buildings at the abbey, and you can’t have a party with Germans unless there are two things: beor, and poetry.  Imagine a group of Germanic cowherds and plowmen sitting at a big oak table, drinking beer and banging their mugs, shouting, “Po-em, po-em!”  Well, that wasn’t the word, but you get the idea.  And they’d pass the harp around – not the big stringed thing, but a sort of zither – and the men would sing heroic poems of the great pagan warriors of old, like Sigemund and Beowulf.  But Caedmon left the beership, because he didn’t know any songs, he said; or maybe he had some uneasiness in his conscience about them.

It was his turn that night to settle the cows in their stalls, so he did that, and fell asleep, when an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Caedmon, sing me something.”

“But I don’t know anything to sing – and that’s why I left the beership.”

“Still, you can sing.”

“What shall I sing?”

Sing me frumsceaft – sing for me the First-Making.”

And so began the venerable tradition of Christian poetry in the heroic meter and idiom of Anglo Saxon.  But if Caedmon had hung around and drunk the beer, who knows?  We might have ended up with silly beer jingles instead, like this one:

“Lots of ale and stout are on my shelf,
And I take a drop or two myself!”
“A drop, he says – the Squire’s got the gout,
The stout makes him ail and the ale makes him stout!”

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