Saturday, January 29, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Rum

Kill-Devil: New rum, from its pernicious effects.

The above entry in The Sailors Word Book is, as usual, succinct and to the point. New rum, made with cane molasses and not aged more than a day or two, is not only pernicious in effect but near heinous in taste. This did not stop the largely British and almost universally poverty stricken immigrants in Barbados during the first half of the 17th century from drinking on average 30 drams of it per day, per person. The famous French priest Jean Baptiste Labat who spent so much time among the buccaneers called the spirit “rough and disagreeable”. He would also have called it guildive, the French pronunciation. All the same the habit of downing it like water – for everyone knew water would kill you – spread pervasively. Especially aboard ship.

But why is it that we no longer call this drink kill-devil and now refer to it as rum? Was it a simple transition of language or did something else spark the change? Being a curious student of the etymology of words, I did a little digging and today I’d like to share what I found out.

According to my old mate Webster, the word comes from the French rebouillir meaning to boil again. The dictionary curiously adds that the etymological ancestor of “rum” may actually be the French rumbouillet, meaning gooseberries which became rumbullion in English and was then shortened to rum.

In fact the idea that rum is simply short for rumbullion is posited by more than one expert. In his fascinating if sometimes misleading book about the effects of rum on society, And a Bottle of Rum, Wayne Curtis notes:

The most likely derivation is that rum is a truncated version of rumbullion or rumbustion. [These] both first surface in the English language around the same time as rum, and both were British slang for “tumult” or “uproar”.

Curtis goes on to say that rumbustion would have been used the way modern English speakers use the word “rambunctious” and notes that it “… brings to mind fractious islanders cracking one another over the head in rumbustious entanglements at island tippling houses.”

It was Hans Sloane, a naturalist travelling the Caribbean in the early 18th century, who stated unequivocally that “… rum is called Kill-Devil, for perhaps no year passes without it having killed more than a thousand.” To the Dutch it was kiel-dyvel and the old French guildive is still in use in Haiti today when referencing some of the less than palatable mashes that get passed around at country gatherings and in places like Cite de Soleil, the slum in Port-au-Prince.

The distasteful kill-devil that was imbibed virtually right out of the still was sent all over the world in oaken casks by the 18th century and time in the barrel changed its nature. Aged rum was and is smooth, agreeable and easily transported. It could last for not weeks or months but years aboard ship and where buccaneers and pirates had begun the trend toward its use as a shipboard ration, the Royal Navy, and eventually its U.S. offspring, formalized the habit. Soon enough grog, that mixture of water, rum and citrus, was born. However, as Curtis notes, “If you come across a pirate and he bellows for “grog,” he is, in all likelihood, not a real pirate”. Well said indeed.

Most probably the significantly improved taste of aged kill-devil brought with it the change to rum. Other origins of the word rum mentioned in various sources include the Roma (gypsy) word rhum meaning “potent”. There is also the oft quoted story that rum comes from saccharum, the Latin word for sugar. It was also suggested in the 1820s that the word came from the British slang for delightful or awesome as in “having a rum go”.

Whatever the origin of the name, rum was and is the very favorite tipple of pirates of the New World. As Woodes Rogers, successful privateer turned Bahamanian Governor, once wrote of rum: “Good liquor to sailors is preferable to clothing.” What more is there to say?

Header: Spiced Navy Rum via Feitelogram Files


Timmy! said...

Ahoy Pauline! I couldn't agree with Woodes Rogers more. Who needs clothing when you have good liquor?

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I think we'd all be happier if we were slightly inebriated all the time. As Ozzy said, "Sobriety is fastly over-rated."