Saturday, April 28, 2007


That's right. I'm going to write about intoxicating drink. But only a specific kind, and with no particular endorsement to drink it. I never have. See, I'm writing about the word.

"Mead" is a very old word, having its roots in the Indo-European and being specifically attested before 900 A.D. Saying "mead" is also very pleasant, for it is simple and vivid and sounds nice. The habitation of Bambi, a meadow, also contains that word, and I am sure they are connected. Another word, very closely related to mead, is "meadery." There is a meadery in my state, and when we were searching for activities to entertain our high school Awana group during our "trip" to Denver, I came across it. Alas, I didn't think parents would appreciate their children receiving such a tour.

My large forty-year-old dictionary (Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary Second Edition, 1966) defines mead, "an alcoholic liquor made of fermented honey, malt, spices, and water to which yeast has been added." has the following definitions:
1. an alcoholic liquor made by fermenting honey and water.
2. any of various nonalcoholic beverages.
(Random House)

The etymology of this ancient word, as described by the Online Etymology Dictionary, is:
mead (1)
"fermented honey drink,"
Old English medu, from Proto-Germanic. *meduz
(cf. Old Norse mjöðr, Danish mjød, Old Frisian, Middle Dutch mede, German Met "mead"),
from Proto-Indo-European base *medhu- "honey, sweet drink"
(cf. Sanskrit madhu "sweet, sweet drink, wine, honey,"
Greek methy "wine,"
Old Church Slavonic medu, Lithuanian medus "honey,"
Old Irish mid, Welsh medd, Breton mez "mead").
Synonymous but unrelated early Middle English meþeglin yielded Chaucer's meeth.
mead (2)
"meadow," Old English mæd "meadow,"
from Proto-Germanic *mædwon
(cf. Dutch made, German Matte "meadow,"
Old English mæþ "harvest, crop"),
from Proto-Indo-European *metwa-, from base *me- "mow" (see mow).

And of course the etymology of "meadow" is:
Old English mædwe, originally "land covered in grass which is mown for hay," oblique case of mæd (see mead (2)).

So the word has to do with honey, with land covered in grass (which is mown). The image presented to me is that of a spring-green field of grass bordered by honeysuckle and other small, fragrant flowers visited by bees. On such a field would JRR Tolkien's wood-elves have feasted, raising goblets to toast with the sweet wine made from honey and fresh spring-water. Since Tolkien was a philologist and etymologist, he was likely trying to make such a point by introducing mead in a meadow.

Oh no. There's another thing. Wine is romantic. Or at least mead is. In such opinion I am joined by the Redstone Meadery:

It is so ancient a beverage that the linguistic root for mead, medhu, is the same in all Indo-European languages where it encompasses an entire range of meanings, which include honey, sweet, intoxicating, drunk and drunkenness. For this reason it has been suggested that fermented honey may be the oldest form of alcohol known to man.-Mikal Aasved, 1988

May Maelgwn of Mona be affected with mead, and affect us, From the foaming mead-horns, with the choicest pure liquor, Which the bees collect, and do not enjoy. Mead distilled sparkling, its praise is everywhere.-XCIII Song to Mead, Book of Taeliessin XIX

Mead. Mention of it evokes images of heroes and romantic tales, of castle feasts and chivalry. Legends surround it, that of golden nectar, swirling in a goblet chased with silver, with the heady, erotic aroma of honey caressing the senses. We see Vikings, downing great tankards of frothy mead after a successful raid. One can imagine a beautiful maiden, holding the stirrup cup in her lithe hand, offering it along with a shy smile to the handsome and chivalrous knight preparing to go off to battle.

The -ery part of meadery can even be fascinating (if you're like me).
-er is a suffix in colloquial usage, added to nouns meaning a thing or action connected with (as in diner)
-y (2)
adj. suffix, "full of or characterized by," from Old English -ig, from Proto Germanic *-iga (cf. German -ig), cognate with Greek -ikos, Latin -icus.

This means a "meadery" is a thing connected with, full of, and characterized by honey wine.

As a final disclaimer, I must mention the following verses: Proverbs 20:1, Proverbs 23:29-35, Isaiah 5:11, 22; Ephesians 5:18

(all bold emphases mine)

To God be all glory.


Dr. Paleo Ph.D. said...

Ooh, fascinating! You definitely have a talent for etymology. Don't let it rot, take it somewhere!

Do you happen to own Noah Webster's 1828 Dictionary? Have you heard of Johnson?

All in all, I was constantly reminded of the medieval aspect of it, especially the references to mead, and the "mead-hall", in Beowulf. You should definitely read that one, plus you like dragons!

On another note, if it makes you feel better I didn't take your post as an endorsement of alcohol consumption. ;-)

Lisa of Longbourn said...

I'm not sure where you "take" an interest in etymology. My hope is that it makes my word choice more accurate and powerful in speech and in writing. J.R.R. Tolkien studied etymology and used it to paint subconscious pictures in his narrative. He used words with similar origins to give undertone of a certain culture.

I do not own Noah Webster's 1828 Dictionary, because I've never invested so much in a book. Haven't heard of Johnson.

I have considered reading Beowulf, and my brother has, but I don't own it. In fact I've just been cataloguing all my books and though I have over three hundred, I don't think I've anywhere near read all of them. But someday I will. I want to read it in Old English. = )
To God be all glory,
Lisa of Longbourn

Dr. Paleo Ph.D. said...

Oh, who has read all of their books!?!? Certainly not me!

And Webster's Dictionary. It may be pricey, but it will be well worth your while, in my opinion. You'll use it for the rest of your life. It's my family's actually....

I've spent more before, on John Gill's commentaries...of course, that was nine volumes.....