Before we dive more fully into the tangled roots of the words “ale” and “beer”, we have to tackle one particularly knotted strand first, caused by the curious fact that, four hundred years before English adopted the word bier from the Continent to describe a malt liquor flavoured with hops (altering the spelling to “beere”), it already had a word beór that was used for an alcoholic drink. Around the time of the Norman invasion in the 11th century, however, beór disappeared from the English language.
(You might want to skip the rest of this blog entry, because it becomes a trifle word-nerdy, though it does range from Iceland to Babylon via Spain, and takes in gods, magical dwarfs and saints, and you’re more than welcome to stay.)
Most writers who touch the subject assert that beór, which is found much less frequently in old texts than the word that became “ale” in modern English, ealu in West Saxon (or alu in Anglian), was merely a synonym for ealu. They take their cue from the Oxford English Dictionary, which says, under its definition of “ale”, that “Ale and beer seem originally to have been synonymous.” To back up this claim the OED quotes from a poem called the Alvíssmál, or “Talk of Alvíss “, composed in the 11th or 12th centuries, probably in Iceland. This says (in Old Norse): “öl heitir með mönnum, en með Ásum bjórr,” that is, “‘ale’ it is called among men, and among the gods ‘beer’.”
But in fact this quote, (which the OED appears to have nicked straight from Bosworth and Toller’s Anglo-Saxon dictionary of 1882) although you’ll see it repeated regularly when the history of ale and beer in Anglo-Saxon times is discussed, doesn’t prove what the OED suggests it proves at all, that is, that öl and bjórr (ealu and beór in Old English) are synonyms, because the extract from the poem has been pulled totally out of context.