First of all, let’s look at the word “hard.” It’s an old Germanic word — so old that one of its first recorded uses is in “Beowulf,” the epic poem written around 700 AD. Maybe because it’s so old, the word has come to have many shades of meaning. It can mean firm and unyielding, rough and abrasive, or stubborn and obstinate.
‘Harsh and unpleasant’
Another meaning that developed early on was “harsh and unpleasant.” It makes sense, then, that in the 1500s, it started being used to describe alcohol that had a sharp, acidic flavor.
A “hard wine” was one that contained a lot of tannins — compounds that come from grape skins and seeds and have an astringent flavor. A treatise on good manners written in the 1500s notes that “Neither hard wine is pleasant to the taste, neither haughty behavior acceptable in company.” Indeed!
‘Powerful and potent’
Another sense of “hard” that developed over time was “powerful and potent.” That’s the sense we use today when we refer to drinks with a high alcohol content, like vodka — in contrast to ones with a lower alcohol content, like beer.
The final sense of “hard” we’ll talk about is the sense of an action that involves great force or that a person does recklessly. From this sense comes the expression of someone being a “hard drinker.” It doesn’t mean they drink hard alcohol (although they might). Instead, it means they drink persistently and drink in excess. Not usually the best combination.
Soft Drinks Versus Hard Alcohol
One other fact about “hard drinks.” You might think of them as the opposite of “soft drinks.” Today, when we use that phrase, we think of sugary, carbonated beverages like Coke, Pepsi or Dr Pepper.
By the way, if you care about punctuation, take note: The “Dr” in “Dr Pepper” does not take a period. If you have a problem with that, talk to the ad executives who decided in the 1950s to take it out because they thought it would be easier to read the name on the bottle without the period.
They were Americans, so they would normally have used a period. But I believe the British don’t put a period after the abbreviation for “doctor.” But Dr Pepper wasn’t owned by a British company at the time.
But the term “soft drink” originally referred to any beverage that was non-alcoholic, such as lemonade, soda water or ginger ale. That usage appeared in the mid-1800s, in an advertisement for an establishment offering “hot mutton, … custards and soft drinks.” Sounds yummy!
Why Are Some Alcohols Called ‘Spirits’?
Let’s jump back a minute to when I mentioned that certain drinks have a higher alcohol content than others. These drinks — brandy, gin, whisky, rum, tequila and vodka — are created by distillation.
That process gives us a hint about another word that’s used for hard alcohol: “spirits.”
Spirits are made by taking an already-existing beverage like wine and heating it in a still. Because alcohol has a lower boiling point than water (78.5 degrees Celsius/ 173.3 degree Fahrenheit versus 100 degrees Celsius / 212 °degree Fahrenheit), the alcohol in the beverage will evaporate before the water does.
So, if you collect the vapors rising from the still, and let them cool and condense back into a liquid, you’ll get a beverage with a higher alcohol content than the one you started with.
And what might those wispy vapors look like, rising into the air? A ghostly presence. A spirit, if you will.
Another possible explanation for why we call alcoholic drinks “spirits” is that a person’s spirit is considered the most essential part of their being. In the same way, alcohol has long been considered essential to life, whether for palliative, medicinal or recreational reasons.
In fact, some historians believe that the reason our primate ancestors came down from the trees in the first place was to eat fermenting fruit lying on the forest floor. And that early humans began to plant and domesticate grains not so they could make bread — but so they could make beer.
Alcohol and purity
One thing we know for sure is that for centuries, before the advent of modern sanitation, drinking alcohol was often better for you than drinking plain water. That’s because alcohol is produced by fermentation.
And when grains and fruits ferment, they produce not just ethanol — which can kill bacteria — but also many other vital nutrients, including B vitamins like folic acid, niacin and riboflavin. In fact, one of Noah Webster’s biographies describes his usual breakfast as “bread and beer,” which wasn’t the red flag back in the 1700s that it would be today.
And we’ll end with a final synonym for alcohol: “aqua vitae,” which is “water of life” in Latin.
(1) Orchard, Andy. A Critical Companion to Beowulf, pp. 231. Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2003 (accessed July 9, 2019).
(2) Krebiehl, Anne. What are Tannins, Really? Wine Enthusiast, Sept. 11, 2018 (accessed July 9, 2019).
(3) Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Alcohol, hard, soft, spirit (subscription required, accessed July 9, 2019).
(4) Encyclopedia Britannica, online edition. Distilled spirit, Distillation, Why is Alcohol Measured by Proof? (subscription required, accessed July 9, 2019).
(5) Foley, Michael. Drunk Catholic History: Spirits and the Holy Spirit. One Peter Five (accessed July 9, 2019).
(6) Curry, Andrew. Our 9,000-Year Love Affair With Booze. National Geographic, February 2017 (accessed July 9, 2019).
(7) Alba-Lois, L. & Segal-Kischinevzky, C. (2010) Yeast Fermentation and the Making of Beer and Wine. Nature Education 3(9):17 (accessed July 9, 2019).
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