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The British press reported last week that rules on the serving of alcoholic drinks were to be relaxed to permit beer to be served in schooners of two-thirds of a pint.

An Australian schooner glass
Schooner, Australian style

Australians are very familiar with this usage but press reports suggested UK journalists were less so, some of them suggesting that schooner was to appear in British pubs for the first time in this sense (though sherry, for example, has long been offered in schooners of varying sizes). It has been illegal for the past 313 years, following a 1698 Act of Parliament, to serve beer in the UK other than in pints, half-pints or thirds of a pint (few people know about this last one). However, a century ago you wouldn’t have found it hard to buy a schooner of beer, or at least a drink that was closely similar in size to that now being proposed:

Of these [local measures] “the schooner” containing 14 fluid ounces, or 2 4-5ths imperial gills, occupied perhaps the most prominent place ... being found in everyday use, under various names, in London, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and elsewhere.

North British Daily Mail (Glasgow), 7 Mar. 1896; 14 fluid ounces in British measure is 400ml, or just over two-thirds of an Imperial pint.

The etymological issue is why the drink should have that name. The Oxford English Dictionary says “perhaps a fanciful usage” of the ship sense of schooner, which isn’t a lot of help. The only hint that I can find, which doesn’t take us very far, is that the earliest sense of schooner in the drink sense, in the USA, was not of a particular measure, but one that was served in a tall glass (in northern English towns a pint so served was at one time also known as a schooner and the term later spread south, though it has now dropped out of use). It may be a bit of a stretch to equate tall glasses with tall ships, you may agree.

The origin of the ship sense is also a mystery. A frequently-told story of its origins holds that a bystander watching the first schooner being launched at Gloucester, Massachusetts, about 1713, exclaimed “Oh, how she scoons!” The ship’s builder, Captain Andrew Robinson, was said to have replied, “A scooner let her be!”

Though the date is about right for the first appearance of a ship of the type, we have to regard this story, first written down in a letter in 1790, as a classic etymological folktale. Not least among the objections is that a New England verb scoon isn’t known, though it’s just possible that it’s a variant of the Scottish scon, “to make flat stones skip along the surface of the water” (a word that should be in everyone’s vocabulary). The h was added later in the eighteenth century because of Dutch domination of the oceans, which suggested that a seafaring term must be Dutch in origin. Oddly, the Dutch name for the ship, schoener, is a loan-word from English.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 22 Jan. 2011

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Last modified: 22 January 2011.