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Drink it, it’ll do you good

Though I’ve been a fan of the Hornblower stories of C S Forester for many years, I’m only recently a convert to the naval narratives of Patrick O’Brian set in the same period. This may seem surprising, but there it is, and at least my unwonted delay means I can now work my way through his extensive canon at my own pace. It is also something of an etymological challenge to be so regularly presented with words and phrases which have gone out of use.

One such appears in Chapter 4 of H M S Surprise, in which Stephen Maturin, like so many doctors, is proving to be a difficult patient, especially when presented with things intended to do him good: “It is another of your damned possets. Am I in childbed, for all love, that I should be plagued, smothered, destroyed with caudle?” Following up these two words led me into a pleasant and mildly alcoholic area of word history.

A posset was a hot drink made from milk curdled with ale, wine, or other liquor, often with sugar, spices, and herbs added in. They had been common for centuries, but by Dr Maturin’s time they were usually regarded as invalid food, though the finer varieties — made with wine and spices and enriched with cream — were served at formal suppers in the eighteenth century. Nobody seems to know where its name came from, but the OED suggests it might be linked to posca, a Latin term for a mixture of vinegar and water or vinegar and wine.

A caudle was also a warm drink, but this time based on gruel, mixed with ale or wine to which spices, sugar or honey were added. As Stephen Maturin’s outburst suggests, caudles were commonly given to sick people and especially to women in childbed. The entry in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable suggests that Mr Brewer shared Dr Maturin’s detestation, describing the caudle as “any sloppy mess, especially that sweet mixture of gruel and wine or spirits once given by nurses to recently confined women and their ‘gossips’ who called to see the baby during the first month”. Caudles were once common enough that they have given their name to a particular design of container, the caudle cup, from which they were presumably consumed; these were small two-handled cups with a cover, often of silver. The word itself derives from the Latin calidus, “warm”, from which we also get calorie and chowder and which turns up, much disguised, in nonchalant, meaning someone who doesn’t get hot under the collar. Another related word is cauldron; this is etymologically a pot for heating people rather than food, since it derives from the Latin calidarium for a hot bath.

Caudles, often thickened with eggs, had been popular drinks from medieval times, commonly as breakfast draughts or as an evening drink in lieu of supper, but by the time of the Napoleonic Wars they had decidedly gone out of fashion except for medicinal purposes. A variant a century before had been the tea caudle, brought back from China about 1664 as a way to eke out that very expensive new drink: “Take two yolks of new-laid eggs, and beat them very well with as much fine sugar as sufficient for the quantity of liquor; when they are very well incorporated, pour your tea upon the eggs and sugar, and stir them well together. So drink it hot”. Ale caudles were often made with breadcrumbs as well as eggs. Another use for caudles was as a filling for hot pies, usually with a mixture of wine or verjuice, egg yolks and butter.

There were other ale-based drinks. Aleberry was ale boiled with spices and sugar and sops of bread. One writer praises aleberry “made with groats and saffron and good ale” and recommended it for men who were sick or afflicted with weak digestions (groats here is hulled and crushed grains of wheat, barley or oats; the word derives from the same root as grits and means “a particle; a fragment”); in Scotland it was common to make aleberry with oatmeal. There is some dispute about the origin of the term, though the “berry” part is certainly just mistaken etymology and has nothing to do with fruits or seeds. Another word for the same drink was alebrue and Brewer says firmly that it derives from the older form ale-bree, where bree is Old English for “broth”, but the OED does not confirm this. A Scots variant was ale crowdie — uncooked meal and ale, fortified with treacle and whisky and consumed at harvest homes. Another celebratory ale-based drink was lamb’s-wool, mulled ale with added spices, sugar and the pulp of roasted apples, which was a traditional beverage for Halloween, Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night, and no doubt for those pleasant moments back in the warm after wassailing was over (the name presumably derives from the smooth softness of the liquor).

There is confusion about the supposed differences between ale and beer. Etymologically speaking, beer is just a drink, any drink. It derives from the Latin biber, from which we also get those splendid terms beverage, bibulous and imbibe. Ale derives from an ancient term which referred to something bitter — it is also the source of our word alum. In Anglo-Saxon times, ale was by far the more usual name for the drink and beer only became common from the sixteenth century onwards as a word for the hopped variety of ale. John Aubrey quotes the rhyme: “Greeke, Heresie, Turkey-cocks, and beer, / came into England all in a yeare”, which turns up in various versions, their only common factor being the rhyme of “beer” and “year” (though turkeys and cultivated hops may actually be near contemporaries in their introduction to England, sometime in the 1520s). In modern English usage beer is the usual term, except when we need to refer to the unhopped variety, or we are trying to be consciously olde-worlde.

Before the introduction of hops, the principal bittering agent used in Britain to improve the flavour of ale and help it keep was alehoof or tunhoof, which are ancient names for that common blue-flowered dead-nettle that we now call more prosaically ground-ivy (Glechoma hederacea), though it looks nothing like ivy. The herbalist Gerard said in 1597: “The women of our northern parts, especially about Wales and Cheshire, do tun the herbe Ale hoove into their ale”, which must have been rather an old-fashioned technique by this time, and so worthy of note. Another flavouring agent was alecost, Chrysanthemum balsamita, a plant from western Asia related to tansy which was brought to England sometime in the sixteenth century. Its name is a compound of ale with cost, a term transferred in medieval times from the Greek name for another spice, Aplotaxis lappa. Other names for it are costmary (cost again, plus St Mary, with whom it was often associated) and bible leaf, the latter because, as with the leaves of tutsan and wood spurge at various times and places, the aromatic leaves were placed between the pages of bibles and prayer books as markers and to bring good luck.

The Latin word for beer was cerevisia; a very rare and obsolete English humorous adjective cerevisial was coined to relate to beer and ale, but the Latin word also turns up in the old doctor’s names for a variety of medicinal ales into which herbs like rosemary have been infused. Such potions included cerevisia cephalica and cerevisia epileptica.

Sour ale was called alegar (the second element here is from the same source as the one in its cousin vinegar — the French word aigre, “sharp; sour”). In the eighteenth century, alegar took over the role of the previously common sharp-tasting flavorant called verjuice (from the same root as the modern French verjus, literally “green juice”), which was made from fermented green, or unripe, grapes. Later it also appropriated the name vinegar, which had previously only been used of the wine-based variant. To distinguish it when necessary, it was called malt vinegar.

The third set of alcoholic medicinal substances that were very familiar to Dr Maturin were the cordials. These were distilled spirits, originally called cordial waters, whose name came from the Latin word for “heart” (which was also the origin of the figurative sense of the word, “sincere, genuine, warm”), and which were thought to invigorate the heart and stimulate the circulation. They were frequently sweetened with sugar or sugar syrup and often brightly coloured by extracts of rose leaves and the like. They are linked through their alcohol solution and colour to tinctures, which were at first dyes or colouring matters (the name comes from the Latin word meaning “to dye” and gives us our tint, tinge and taint) and then to alchemists came to mean the essential qualities of a substance taken into solution, which led to the more modern pharmaceutical sense of a solution of some substance in alcohol.

Cordials were sold by distillers, doctors and apothecaries and were also commonly made at home in the stillhouse. There were dozens of different types, including angelica water (proof spirit re-distilled with the herb angelica), lavender water (which was once taken internally against falling sickness and infirmities of the brain), surfeit water (poppies, raisins and spices infused in distilled alcohol or re-distilled; so called because it was thought to cure a surfeit of eating and drinking), hysterical water, clary water (which was distilled using the flowers of the plant we now call wild clary, Salvia verbenacea, a relative of sage, whose name comes from the old English slarie but which was later converted to clear-eye by apothecaries, since a salve made from its seeds was used to treat eye conditions), diamber (made with ambergris and musk), ratafia (brandy infused with almonds, apricot or cherry kernels, not the aperitif of unfermented champagne grape juice mixed with brandy which is its common meaning today) and saffron cordial (which used marigold-flowers, nutmeg and saffron). Overleaf from his diatribe against possets and caudles, Dr Maturin dismisses with a shudder Godfrey’s cordial, which was originally prepared by a “Mr Thomas Godfrey of Hunsdown in Hertfordshire” in the eighteenth century and which was a tincture of opium with sassafras and treacle.

Gradually, the word cordial came in Britain to refer to certain kinds of coloured, sweet liquids with the alcoholic implications being set aside, so that by the time of my youth the word could refer either to a sweet-tasting medicine or to any coloured and flavoured fruit-based non-alcoholic glop.

Page created 5 Apr. 1997

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Last modified: 5 April 1997.