Brain Pickings

The Etymology of “Hangover”

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What George Washington and coarse French fabric have to do with the language of drunkenness.

The fringes of language have a special kind of allure, especially when it comes to the unsuspected origins of common words. That’s precisely what Mark Forsyth explores with equal parts wryness, curiosity, and erudition in The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language (public library), based on his popular language-geekery blog The Inky Fool. Among Forsyth’s fascinating, meandering stories of linguistic historicity is that of the hangover — a phenomenon encrusted with rich empirical familiarity, and even some scientific knowledge, but paltry etymological grasp.

[George Washington] had an elder half-brother and mentor called Lawrence Washington who had, in fact, been a British soldier. Specifically, he was a marine in the Royal Navy. As a recruit from the British dominions in North America, he served under Admiral Edward Vernon in the Caribbean, and was part of the force that seized a strategically important base called Guantánamo, which has some minor position in modern history.

Lawrence Washington was very attached to admiral Vernon. So loyal was he that when he went home to the family estate, which had been called Little Hunting Creek Plantation, he decided to rename it Mount Vernon. So Washington’s house was named after a British admiral.

Admiral Vernon’s naming exploits didn’t end there, though. In 1739 Vernon led the British assault on Porto Bello in what is now Panama. He had only six ships, but with lots of derring-do and British pluck, et cetera, he won a startling victory. In fact, so startling was the victory that a patriotic English farmer heard the news, dashed off to the countryside west of London, and built Portobello Farm in honour of the victory’s startlingness. Green’s Lane, which was nearby, soon became known as Portobello Lane and then Portobello Road. And that’s why the London market, now one of the largest antiques markets in the world, is called Portobello Market.

But Admiral Vernon’s naming exploits didn’t end there, either. When the seas were stormy he used to wear a thick coat made out of coarse material called grogram (from the French gros grain). So his men nicknamed him Old Grog.

British sailors used to have a daily allowance of rum. In 1740, flushed from victory at Porto Bello and perhaps under the pernicious influence of Lawrence Washington, Vernon ordered that the rum be watered down. The resulting mixture, which eventually became standard for the whole navy, was also named after Vernon. It was called grog.

If you drank too much grog you became drunk or groggy, and the meaning has slowly shifted from there to the wages of gin: a hangover.

The rest of The Etymologicon traces curious linguistic origin stories connecting concepts as seemingly unrelated as sex and bread, Medieval monks and cappuccino, sausage poison and botox, and much more.

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