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What Does Dutch Courage Mean? And 10 Other Weird Words for Alcohol

English has a surprising number of words for alcohol.

By
Samantha Enslen, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #837

Cheers, everyone! Today we’re going to explain what “Dutch courage” is and talk about other weird words for alcohol. We’ll talk about booze, hooch, and nipperkins, to name a few.

Booze and bottle

Let’s start with “booze.” This word comes from the Middle English “bŏus,” meaning an intoxicating drink. A book from the 1500s advises that man should “not synke in watur but swymme in boos.” Good point, but that may be a bit extreme!

“Bottle,” another word for alcohol, has a dual meaning. Obviously, it can mean a glass container that might hold beer or wine. It can also refer to the drink itself, or the practice of drinking. For example, we can say that someone who’s drunk is “deep in the bottle,” or that they “like the bottle a little too much.”

In the same way, “juice” and “sauce,” which have neutral meanings, can also be slang words for alcohol. We usually see “sauce” paired with “the,” as in, “he really likes the sauce.”

A drink versus the drink

Even the generic word “drink” often substitutes as a word for alcohol. Has anyone ever asked you to “go out for a drink”? The implication is that you’d be going out for a beer or a cocktail. 

Interestingly, the meaning of “I need a drink” depends on context. If you’ve been outside on a hot day, “I need a drink” simply means “I need a big glass of water.” However, if you’ve had a rough day at work, or a big fight with your bestie, saying “I need a drink” implies that you need a swig of alcohol to reduce your stress.

On a different note, if you talk about “the drink,” it has nothing to do with beverages at all! “The drink” is slang for a body of water. For example, you could say that someone walking carelessly on a pier accidentally “fell into the drink.”

Hooch … or hoochinoo?

Now let’s talk about “hooch.” This word has an interesting history. It’s a short version of “Hoochinoo,” which itself is an Anglicized version of the Tlingit word “Hutsnuwu.” This is the name of a people indigenous to Admiralty Island, south of Juneau in Alaska. The literal translation of this word is “brown bear fort” or “grizzly bear fort.”

These people made a potent spirit out of molasses, yeast, berries, sugar, and flour. Americans and Europeans who came to the region in the 1890s as part of the Klondike gold rush began to trade for this liquor. They called it “hoochinoo” after the people who made it.

Over time, this shortened to “hooch” and the meaning extended. First, it came to mean any super strong, cheap, or illegal liquor made in Alaska or northwestern Canada. Today, it means any such alcohol, wherever it’s made.  

Dutch courage

Now we turn to “Dutch courage.” This term dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when England and the Dutch republic were at war. During this time of hostility, the British coined several phrases that used “Dutch” as an insult.

There was “Dutch bargain,” meaning a deal you make when you’re drunk, and that won’t hold water after you sober up. There was a “Dutch concert,” the din made when several songs are played at once. And there was “Dutch feast,” meaning a party where the host gets drunk well before the guests do.

Then there’s “Dutch courage”—aka, courage that’s gained by downing a big slug of alcohol—not true courage at all. The phrase can mean not just false courage, but also alcohol itself. 

For example, if you were anxious about asking someone on a date, you could have a tipple of Dutch courage to calm your nerves.

You’ll notice that several of these derisive phrases allude to the drinking habits of the Dutch, which at the time were believed to be excessive. This probably wasn’t true and was just a case of viewing “foreigners” in a negative light.

Tipples and the hard stuff

“Tipple,” by the way, means either a drink of alcohol, or the act of drinking itself. It has the sense of drinking tiny amounts, almost continuously. Imagine someone who carries a flask of whisky in a jacket pocket and secretly takes small sips all day long. They would be a “tippler,” and they would be “tippling.” 

(By the way, just so you don’t get confused, a “tippler” is also a type of pigeon specially bred for endurance flying. The original Tippler was a cross between a French Cumulet and an Indian Highflyer. In contests, Tipplers have stayed aloft for up to 20 hours!)

OK, back to drinking. If someone is tippling, hopefully they’re not drinking “the hard stuff.” That phrase refers to drinks with a high alcohol content, like rum, vodka, and tequila. In contrast, drinks with a lower alcohol content include beer, wine, and hard cider. 

By the way, there are several reasons why hard alcohol is called “hard.” One of them is that “hard” used to mean “harsh and unpleasant.” In the 1500s, people started to call sharp, acidic wines “hard wines” for this reason. The name stuck, and it evolved over time to mean any drink with a high percentage of alcohol by volume.

Nipperkins

Finally, let’s talk about one other fun term—"nipperkin"!

A nipperken is a small container used to measure alcohol. Over time, the word also came to mean the amount of alcohol itself, as in, “I’ll have a nipperkin of grog.” 

The origin of this word is uncertain, but we believe it came from the Dutch “nippen” meaning “to sip,” paired with “-kin,” a suffix added to words to give them a diminutive sense. Thus “nipper” plus “kin” would mean “a sip” that is “tiny.” 

This sense is still used today when we talk about “having a nip.” That means we’re having a wee sip of alcohol—perhaps a teeny sip of Bailey’s Irish Cream before heading to bed.

Remember, listeners, that alcohol is only for folks 21 and over, and that all of us should practice drinking in moderation. Until next time—cheers!

References

Culinary Lore. Origin of word ‘Hooch’ for Liquor. September 29, 2012. Accessed August 6, 2021.

Martin, George. The Phrase Finder. Dutch courage. Accessed August 6, 2021.

Merriam-Webster dictionary online. Tipple. Accessed August 6, 2021.

Oxford English Dictionary Online. Dutch, hooch, hoochinoo, nipperkin. Accessed August 6, 2021.

PigeonPedia. Tippler Pigeons: Breed Information and Facts. Accessed August 6, 2021. 

Treguer, Pascal. Word Histories. A Phrase Based On Prejudice: ‘Dutch Courage.’ Accessed August 6, 2021.

University of Michigan Library. Middle English Compendium. Bous. Accessed August 6, 2021. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

 

 

 
 

About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.