Beor

ken writes:

It seems clear that whereas the definitions of OE ealu, medu, and win are much the same as the definitions of their derivatives, ealu being a malt-based alcohol, medu fermented honey and water, and win fermented grape-juice, OE beor was a drink made from honey and the juice of a fruit other than grapes, as the glosses ofetes wos and æppelwin suggest. (Old English Beor, p. 90).

I recently re-read Christine Fell‘s paper “Old English Beor” (from Leeds Studies in English, n.s. 8 (1975), 76-95) on the topic of the where the modern English word for beer comes from.  Fell argues that Beor did not mean beer as we know it at all but was a sweet- tasting, highly intoxicating, drink made from honey and the juice of a fruit other than grapes. Martyn Cornell, following Fell’s work, suggests it’s ‘somewhere between possible and probable – that beór was, in fact, fermented apple juice.’ I don’t think that is true.

 

Two distinct but related questions.

In my opinion, there are really two distinct but related questions. The first is what was the substance called beor by the anglo-saxons, or what did beor mean? The second is where did the (modern English) word ‘beer’ come from? One scenario is that the substance called beor by the Anglo-Saxons was cider and that the word stopped being used this way after the Norman Conquest (in much the way French words like beef and mutton were borrowed into English). Then, when beer began to be imported into the UK from Holland, ‘beer’ came to be used for hopped ale to distinguish it from unhopped English ale. So there’s a etymological discontinuity between O.E. Beor and Mod. E. beer.

Another scenario is that O.E. beor and Mod. E. beer are etymologically continuous, and the modern English word is a direct descendant of the Old English word, even though the Old English word might have had a very different sense then. For example, in C.S. Lewis’s Studies in Words, he describes how the modern English word sad (meaning unhappy) derives from Old English sæd meaning full. Over time sæd changed its sense, acquiring the meaning heavy, and eventually by metaphorical extensions came to its present meaning. That it is in one sense the same word whose meaning has changed over time is established (as much as these things can be) by a series of quotes from different periods.

It seems to me that the existence of a body of quotes where the same word (making allowances for minor changes in spelling conventions) can be recognised over the course of hundreds of years is sufficient to show that the Mod. E. word beer comes from the O.E. word beor.  The entry for beor in the Bosworth-Toller dictionary of Old English, starting with a quotation from the epic Beowulf poem of the late 5th century, is continued in the entry for bēr in the online Middle english Dictionary which has quotes starting around 1150AD then 1275, 1300, 1330, 1377-99, 1404-5, 1450, 1467, up to 1483.

But beor might have meant something totally different back then. Christine Fell looks at the context of where the word appears and the compound words it features in to build up information about its likely meaning and connotations. The first thing we notice is that Beor doesn’t occur nearly as much as ealu (ale), medu (mead), or win (wine). Also it’s more likely to occur in poetic rather than practical or functional contexts or compounds, which suggests it belongs to a different register (the same goes for medu but even more so). But belonging to a different register doesn’t mean they differ significantly in the sorts of thing they are words for. Horses sweat. Men perspire and women glow, after all.

The strongest evidence that beor meant something other than ealu/ealaþ in Anglo-Saxon times comes from the material gathered in Rev. Cockayne’s Leechdoms Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England. On page 298 there is given a list of the relative weights of a measure of oil, ale, wine, beor, honey, butter, meal, and beans. Ale and beor have different relative weights so they cannot have been the same drink. The Leechdoms is a medical tract detailing various treatments and preparations for different conditions. Ale and wine are used more often than beor and as Christine Fell observes, when they occur together the instruction is to sweeten the win or ale but not the beor, indicating that the drink is already sweet enough. But was it already sweet enough because the drink was naturally sweet, or was it sweetened as a matter of course during preparation/serving?

Christine Fell notes that in the poetry of Old Norse, which is a relevant related language and which also has four words vin, öl, mjöðr, and bjórr (and mungát, which is apparently strong ale) the verb frequently used of mjöðr, and bjórr is blanda (to blend, mix) whereas öl is simply ‘called for’ (heita). Perhaps beor like bjórr was blended with something to sweeten it at serving. This might explain why the Leechdoms cautions against pregnant women and people suffering certain illnesses drinking it (because whatever it was mixed with might harm the baby).

Old Norse scribes writing in ca. 1200AD apparently glossed Latin mulsum as bjórr. This seems to identify it with mead. On the other hand if bjórr was a mixed drink, this would explain the otherwise puzzling reference to biorblandoðu vini in Elis saga, which Christine Fell discusses. This looks like it means beer-blended wine. But maybe it is wine blended like beer not blended with beer.

O.E. beor was also used as a gloss for Latin mulsum and for Latin Hydromellum (literally honey-water), both of which mean mead. Æppelwīn  was also used as a gloss for hydromellum, perhaps because Isidore of Seville said hydromelum was made from water and apples (Etymologies, Book XX).

Maybe that should be the end of the matter: case closed. But I don’t find the evidence of the glosses conclusive because the glossing could be an act of interpretation, rather than of translation. It’s not like a medieval dictionary. The scribe could have been writing down what they thought the author meant, sort of ‘making-it-applicable-to-us,’ rather than what the word meant. At any rate, I don’t think you can say Æppelwīn = hydromellum = beor. Therefore, Æppelwīn = beor.

For all that the evidence from the Leechdoms and the glosses shows, beor could still have been a beer in the sense of an alcoholic drink produced by fermentation of sugars predominantly derived from cereals. Perhaps ealu is your low ABV lusty quaffer and beor is your high-starting-gravity high-finishing-gravity viscous and heavy sipper. Or beor was the hard to get prestige drink, perhaps, because it was kept for a long time before serving and was served with honey and spices. It might have been especially intoxicating not purely because of the alcohol content but because the spices might have been intoxicating.

All this is speculation, of course. But the speculation only has to show how textual evidence offered by Christine Fell can be made consistent with beor being something we would call beer in the general sense now (i.e. a cereal-based drink). The etymological continuity stretching from OE beor, through ME bēr, to ModE beer is the main point of the case.

Against the Cider Hypothesis

It seems to me that identifying beor with cider faces the following problems

  1. Cider is not especially alcoholic. It has a usual starting specific gravity of 1.060-1.070 depending on the apples, which is more than ale usually is, but not very high and less than wine. And malt-based drinks, barley wines, have higher starting specific gravities. (Cider would have to be chaptalised with honey to get to something as potent as wine).
  2. Cider is not especially sweet (unless it is blended with fresh juice or honey before serving). But if we’re talking about blending before serving, we might as well go with strong stock ale as a candidate for beor.
  3. If the word beor meant something like cider/fruit wine/etc, there would be a etymological connection to fruit, but as far as I know there isn’t. (apparently there is a Norman French dialect word bére meaning cider, which could have been borrowed from the Old Norse word bior/bjórr if it meant cider, but there isn’t a demonstrated continuity there like there is in English, and it raises the question why, if the Norse settlers of France used an Old Norse word for cider when they lived in France (bjorr) AND contemporaneous Englishmen used a cognate word (beor) for cider, the Englishmen switched to a completely different word after the conquest.
  4. There is an obvious word for cider in Old English already, namely win and more specifically æppelwin.

 

Random Curveball

If beor wasn’t cider and it wasn’t beer, it might be significant that OE beo meant bee,  or perhaps it was fermented birch sap since we have OE beorc meaning birch.

 

The German word for beer

Da das Brauen von Bier (wie auch der Hopfenanbau) zuerst (seit 6./7. Jh.) nur in Klöstern betrieben wird, ist Herleitung von spätlat. biber ‘Trank’, zu lat. bibere ‘trinken’, zu erwägen. [link] (As brewing beer, like growing hops, was first carried out only in monasteries (from the 6th and 7th centuries) the derivation from late latin biber drink, from Latin bibere to drink, should be considered).

I find it puzzling that the etymology of the German word das Bier is supposed to derive from vulgar Latin biber to drink. Grapes don’t flourish in northern Europe and the peoples of northern Europe would have been drinking beer (that is alcoholic drinks fermented from sugars derived from cereals) since forever. Why would they have borrowed the word from Latin? The pagan German tribes were pre-literate so of course it’s only attested from the 6th and 7th centrury in monasteries.

The Beer Belt (Brauwelt International, 2018ii, p.82
Distribution of predominant alcohol varieties in Europe (from N & C McGregor, Brauwelt International 2018/ii, p.82)

According to Christine Fell, something clearly cognate with beor is present in all the West Germanic languages, but not Gothic. The part in the bible where it says John the Baptist drinks neither wine nor strong drink (Luke 1:15) Gothic has leiþu, which online dictionaries of Gothic give as strong drink (or, interestingly, cider or fruit-wine). But given the very restricted corpus of Gothic, perhaps that translation is arrived at purely on the basis that translates Greek σικερα.

While there is no attested word for beer, Gothic did seem to have a word beist, used to translate Greek ζυμε, that meant ‘sourdough’ or ‘leaven‘ i.e. a yeast starter, that is potentially connected with beor on semantic grounds given that r/s/z frequently frequently displace each other in languages—a sound change known as rhotacism and known to be missing from Gothic but present in the other Germanic languages .

 

 

My argument in summary:

  • There is an etymological continuity between Mod. E. beer and O.E. beor.
  • There is no demonstrated etymological continuity between O.E. beor and any vocabularly connected with apples.
  • There is pretty good evidence that beor and ealað were different drinks, but if beor was something like old stock ale blended and sweetened at the point of serving, it would fit the evidence too.

 

 

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Stubs

Dot writes:

fiction isn’t happening for me and hasn’t been for a while. It’s not that I don’t have ideas, just that none of them go anywhere. They are sedentary ideas, reluctant to venture into the January wet, slumped in front of their computers. Is it worth getting any of these moving?

Quiche Lorraine

Quiche Lorraine is a heroine who works as a canteen lady at a tech firm. Once, helping to unload the Tescos delivery at the back of the office block, she spotted a nefarious character seeking to enter without a lanyard. Thinking quickly, she threw a quiche in his face and he gave up the attempt. Thus her name. Few people know how she got it but the ones who do recognise it’s a badge of honour.

Dazzle

The problem with Sean was that he had no real interest in anything anybody else said or did. He was very generous, very kind – he’d buy you dinner, or a jumper you liked, or tickets to a film he’d just seen and wanted to tell you about. He was popular with small children because he knew a few magic tricks and was always delighted to show them off. He liked to tell people things he knew, such as the way Teflon pans are made or how events were misrepresented in the currently popular TV history drama. However, if you knew more about that particular historical period than he did he was never going to find out. He would never stop talking for long enough for you to mention it.

So Louisa thought, sourly. The shine had long worn off him as far as she was concerned. Or, rather, she’d realised he was the sort of bright light that only made everything else seem darker – a localised dazzle that didn’t illuminate. And she herself was especially cast into shade, practically invisible, in fact – Sean’s sister and, thanks to personal setbacks, currently, reluctantly, his housemate – appearing briefly on the edge of his sociable evenings to boil a kettle and disappear again. But there are things you can do in the dark.

Knot

The girl under the lamp-post smiled happily. She knew she had done well. Duncan had only managed to get a bollard. Kelly was pretending a wheelie-bin was an achievement but, really, it was a flimsy thing and not even fixed to the ground. Look at her tying herself on with pathetic thoroughness, as though you could solve everything with a sufficiently complicated knot. Sometimes it didn’t matter how hard you worked or how clever you were; it was just about where you were standing. The girl under the lamp-post pushed against the belt that strapped her to it, to check it would hold firm.

 

I Fall Apart

Here are two versions of a song.

This is the one I heard first. It’s sweet and melodic and sad. It immediately became a song I needed to hear many times.

As it happens, it’s a cover, and here is the original. On first listening I liked it far less.

Probably all people who properly keep up with current music have heard the Post Malone version and not necessarily the Flor version, but I tend to come at everything sideways – in this case from letting Spotify play on after the last Haim album, which led me to Flor’s single ‘Guarded’, and some time later to investigating them further. Their recent album is a feast of irresistibly tuneful indie pop and I thoroughly recommend it. Also the singer, Zach Grace, is as cute as a bag of kittens.

But back to Post Malone. The original version of the song definitely grew on me. I post it here partly just to share the song in both renditions, but partly because it’s a case study in how trying to think about things can change my enjoyment or aesthetic experience of them. When I first heard Post Malone I thought “oh, the vocal is a bit forced, when Zach Grace has such a sweet, expressive voice; and the tempo is slower and it seems draggy; and where’s that great bass line I was enjoying; and I don’t like the hip-hop instrumentation as much as those clear and pearly guitar parts” (I was going, of course, from the cover to the original). However, the more agonised and rough delivery of the original version, and that tough guy aesthetic in the general musical style, makes sense with the lyric. “Oh, I fall apart, down to my core” – but he’s trying to self-medicate after his break-up – “harder than the liquor I pour” – and he’s resorting to misogyny in a crap, macho way that just confirms what a mess he is – “devil in the form of a whore”. When Zach Grace sings that line it sounds a bit rougher than the rest but it’s hard to believe he might mean it. When Post Malone sings it you see the ugliness in sadness, how falling apart means feeling and behaving like shit.

That all sounds very intellectually pleasing, doesn’t it? I should prefer the Post Malone version now, as being more insightful or authentic or something. Indeed, thinking through the song’s themes did go hand in hand with acclimatizing to Post Malone’s sound-world. But Flor’s sound is so lovely; and really I’d rather listen to them.

A Walk in the Dark

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It was past 6 o’clock on Halloween and already dark as she crossed the road into the Yew Grove estate, the little duffle-coated figure trailing behind her. Oh, how tired she was, how she longed to get home and shut out all the posturings and jargon of her day, but he hadn’t wanted to leave his childminder – he’d refused to fetch his things, wanted to stay in the warm watching tv, and she’d got angry and said there’d be no trick or treating, since he couldn’t do what he was told. And certainly the idea of tramping from house to house smiling politely while hissing at him to say thankyou made her want to scream. But it was mean of her, she knew. She’d tell him he could go after all, just as soon as it was decent to relent. Meanwhile he was dawdling. He was in a sulk.

The houses in this estate were large and blank for the most part: neat blinds, trimmed borders, prosperous cars on brick-paved drives. There weren’t many children here, but a few people had decorated for Halloween, and they hadn’t settled for home-made cutouts or plastic skeletons from Centra. One house had a row of ragged scarecrows in the garden and a single pumpkin carved into a leering face; another had a giant black spider on the wall. “How clever,” she said to herself, but her pace quickened. “Hurry up!” she called to her son.

As she rounded the corner it turned quieter and far darker. Two of the streetlights weren’t working; instead of their yellow glow there was an intermittent white flicker which she realised after a moment must come from LED projectors. On the side of the nearest house a procession of stooped, bony shapes endlessly crept along the wall. Further on wispy ghosts scattered into the eaves. Behind, now the noise of the main road had receded, she could hear the stubborn little footsteps. Suddenly, a great shadow swept across the pavement, so dark she couldn’t help but jump and cry out – what was that? It looked like a clawed, grasping hand, but it missed her, thank god – and of course it must just be another projection, but what a horrible one! She scuttled a few yards more and then stopped and waited. “Hurry up! Run and hold my hand!” She heard him stumble, and looked back, but for a moment she couldn’t see him at all, and the dark lay over the pavement. Then there he was, walking on at the same pace as before. Well, be like that! If he wasn’t scared, he was tougher than she was. She turned and resumed walking.

Round another corner, and they were out of the Yew Tree estate and into the brighter and smaller streets of their own neighbourhood. Soon she’d be able to turn on the television, put on a kettle for pasta, make tea. She hurried to her front door, opened it and flicked on the lights. The small figure finally caught up to her; she let him in and firmly closed the door. And then gazed in horror at the blank white eyes of the creature that was no longer her son.

 

Two records

Dot writes:

over the last few months of listening, two records have been my favourites, and if I spin it right (see what I did there) I can present them as representing almost opposite strategies for how to be a musician.

One is meditative, intricate, makes use of mostly traditional orchestral instruments, has no vocal lines unless you count birdsong, responds to traditional crafts, remote places and the natural world, and comes upon you gently; it’s a record to think with, to be alone with, to drive through the rain with (as I have); and I realise I don’t actually know what the artist behind it looks like, which is appropriate given the project is called Hidden Orchestra. The album is the exquisite Dawn Chorus.

The other is brash and loud, draws on a garish mix of genres but most prominently on rock and EDM, has songs about drugs, vacuous self-help, twisted internet obsessions and cowboys finding friendship, veers from the utterly bleak to the camply hilarious, is ugly in places and cliche’d in places and full of catchy tunes, and is made by an artist who dresses like he’s in a different Sacha Baron Cohen film every week, when not actually naked. (Or wearing – brace yourself if you plan to click the link – these very memorable underpants.) Also, he’s pissing on his own face on the cover. It’s amazing I like it, but I do, very much. (Not the pissing part, but those truly are memorable underpants.) In this case I’m talking about Kirin J. Callinan and Bravado.

What do these records have in common, apart from that I like them? Collaboration, for one. Hidden Orchestra combines field recordings, especially of dawn in various places, with instrumental performances, all brought together by the magic of a laptop; one of the performers is Tomáš Dvořák, the clarinettist and composer responsible (as Floex) for the Machinarium and Samorost soundtracks. Kirin J. Callinan I discovered through his collaboration with Alex Cameron, another singer who likes to inhabit different characters, though without experimenting so recklessly with his trousers. Here’s the collaboration. It should win Eurovision and bring about world peace.

Another connection is that they both repay repeat listening. With Hidden Orchestra perhaps this is obvious: some of the tracks are quite long; they’re richly textured; the way the field recordings blends into and works with the instrumental music is worth thought. (I found myself thinking about how the birdsong somehow starts to seem melancholy in conjunction with the human music – for its innocence, for the damage we might do it, for the consciousness of fragility and loss that we bring to this sound that is so much more ancient than we are, for how we strain to connect with the natural world around us). But with Kirin J. Callinan too I find there’s a lot of substance behind the brashness. As I keep listening, the funny tracks don’t stop being funny, and the difficult or initially ugly tracks (thinking here especially of “Down 2 Hang”) turn out to have powerful stories to tell and music that helps to tell it. And his lyric writing is remarkably good, as witness this bonkers piece of rhyming from “Song About Drugs”: “wrapped up in plastic, thrown down the stairs / feeling fantastic…” But approach his Instagram account with caution.

Door

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Once upon a time there was a boy who had a little door in his belly that he could put things inside. He was embarrassed about it and didn’t tell anyone, even his parents. He still ate food as normal but sometimes he knew he needed something for the door. Usually it was only something small. Once he placed the thing inside, It might disappear, or it might change, or it might wait. The boy worried about being so strange and he didn’t want to be laughed at, but he had to accept this was how it was for the present.

Continue reading “Door”