Saturday, May 28, 2016

`Low-Grade Industrial Usquebaugh'

Here’s a beautiful and peculiar word: usquebaugh. Though never much of a whiskey drinker, I should have known it long ago. The OED traces it to the Irish and Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha, literally “water of life.” It means “whiskey” and entered English in Shakespeare’s time. It’s exotic enough to dazzle a word-minded drunk, and it would have come in handy forty years ago. I found usquebaugh in the letter Swift wrote to Pope on May 2, 1730:

“As to virtue, you have more charity than I, who never attempt to seek it, and if I had lost all my money I would disdain to seek relief from power. The loss would have been more to some wanting friends and to the public than to myself. Besides, I find that the longer I live I shall be less expensive. It is growing with me as with Sir John Mennis, who, when he grew old, boasted of his happiness to a friend that a groat would make him as drunk as half-a-crown did formerly; and so with me, half-a-pint of wine will go as far as a pint did some years ago, and probably I shall soon make up an abstemious triumvirate with you and Mr. [John] Gay. Your usquebaugh is set out by long sea a fortnight ago.”

We know from his diary that Samuel Pepys reported to Mennis (1599-1671), who served as Controller of the Navy. Like many in subsequent years, Mennis fancied himself a wit and poet. Among his works I’ve been unable to trace Swift’s anecdote, though Mennis is credited with having written “Upon a Surfeit Caught by Drinking Bad Sack at the George Tavern in Southwark” (and the timeless “Upon a Fart Unluckily Let”). Two Scots, Burns and Scott, use usquebaugh, the former in “Tam o’ Shanter”:

“Inspiring bold John Barleycorn!
What dangers thou canst make us scorn!
Wi’ tippenny, we fear nae evil;
Wi’ usquabae, we'll face the devil!”

In his chapter on Burns in Lectures on the English Poets, Hazlitt, not a notable drinker, finds room for  usquebaugh: “He might have traced his habit of ale-house tippling to the last long precious draught of his favourite usquebaugh, which he took in the prospect of bidding farewel [sic] for ever to his native land.” But I was most gratified to discover on my own that Myles na gCopaleen, in his “Cruiskeen Lawn” column in the Irish Times on March 25, 1957, had likewise used my favorite new word. The context is too convoluted to explain:

“Weeds and other snaggings are automatically extracted from the sool gayr’s rejects by ingenious electrically-powered antennae known as lawva fawda and conveyed to a complex of secret `secondary hopsitals’ where the material is converted into Irish tweed, low-grade industrial usquebaugh, carpenter’s scantlings, newsprint, plastic hurley sticks, cut-glass eggcups and ingots of radioactive turf.”

The Irish Times, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Flann O’Brien’s death on April Fools’ Day 2016, posted a selection of the great man’s columns.


webby53 said...

I've enjoyed your blog vicariously ( never noticed the tie to "vicar" before but am fresh from three Geo. Eliot novels ( Silas, Mill and Middle) and "Scenes...")for years without thanking you - so . But Latin "aqua vita" looks similar to subject of day... something Indo-European, Irish monks...?


Colville said...

On the subject of whiskey here is a parody of Seamus Heaney's style by the English poet, Wendy Cope


Deft, practised, eager,
Your fingers twist the metal cap.
Late into the moth-infested night
We listen to soft scrapings
Of bottle-top on ridged glass.

The plash and plug of amber liquid
Streaming into tumblers, inches deep.
Life-water. Fire-tanged
Hard stuff. Gallons of it,
Sipped and swigged and swallowed.

Whiskey: its terse vowels belie
The slow fuddling and mellowing,
Our guttural speech slurring
Into warm, rich blather,
The pie-eyed, slug-witted slump

Into soused oblivion -
And the awakening. I long
For pure, cold water as the pump
Creaks in the yard. A bucket
Clatters to the ground. Is agony.

She does a mean Eliot, Pound, Bunting, Larkin, Hughes, Raine and even Geoffrey Hill.