Words for beer (2) – was ‘beer’ originally cider?

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.

The Alvíssmál concerns a dwarf called Alvíss (“All-wise”), who, in Thor’s absence, has apparently been given permission by the other gods to carry off Thor’s daughter and marry her. Thor comes back and isn’t over-happy when he discovers this, and (plot spoiler alert) cleverly delays Alvíss’s departure by flattering the dwarf, telling Alvíss how wise he is, and asking him a series of questions about the names different beings, including men, gods, giants and elves, use for different items. This questioning delays the dwarf’s departure with Thor’s daughter until the sun rises, and, just as Thor had planned, Alvíss is turned to stone (which is, as you’ll know, what happens when dwarfs are hit by the sun’s rays), thus rather thoroughly stopping him making off with Thor’s lovely young lass.

In the poem, the different words Alvíss gives to Thor are not meant to be exact equivalents. For the moon, to give one example, Alvíss says that the gods call it “Flame”, it is called “The Wheel” in the house of Hell, “The Gleamer” by the dwarfs and “The Teller of Time” by the elves. These are all clearly poetic synonyms, not direct ones. When Thor asks Alvíss what the different beings call “the seed that is sown by men”, the dwarf replies that it is known as “bygg” by men and “barr” by the gods, bigg and bere in English, words for different types of barley, and not precise synonyms at all. In the final question, about öl, Alvíss says that as well as being known as bjórr by the Gods, some call it “the Foaming”, the giants call it “the Feast-Draught”, while “in Hell they call it mjöð” – mead!

Now ale, made from grain, is certainly not the same as mead, made from honey, despite Alvíss saying that in Hell “ale” is called “mead”. No one, I think, is going to suggest that on the evidence from the Alvíssmál, “ale” and “mead” must have been originally synonymous. If these two are not synonyms, though used by Alvíss as if they were, we cannot assume that öl and bjórr were synonyms, either, even if Alvíss used them as if they were: the Alvíssmális a poem, not a dictionary. Therefore the Alvíssmál cannot be used to argue, as the OED tries to, that ealu and beór, when first found in Old English, must have been synonyms for the same drink.

Having left that specific argument looking like the cat I saw in the middle of an eight-lane highway the other night, let us drive on and examine evidence for Old English beór and Old English ealu being different drinks, and for what sort of a drink beór might have been. The late Christine Fell, Professor of Early English Studies at the University of Nottingham, fortunately for me, did all the hard work some 36 years ago, in a paper called “Old English beór“, published in Leeds Studies in English New Series Vol VII, 1974. I’ve given the full cite there because, sadly, this isn’t available via the net, but if you can track down a copy (the British Library has one) it’s fascinating.

(The OED section that covers “ale” and “beer” is due for revision soon, I believe, and I’d be interested to know if they’ll be taking on board Professor Fell’s arguments: the trouble appears to be that, as the Dictionary of National Biography puts it, when the OED was first put together the compilers of the OED were “dependent on Toller’s work for its pre-conquest references”. Toller had been brought in to complete Bosworth’s work on a revised Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, after Bosworth died in 1876, and the section covering A and B was mostly Bosworth’s doing. Bosworth seems to have been less of a scholar than Toller, and more likely to jump to conclusions: the entry in the Anglo-Saxon Dictionary for beór assumes without question that beór = “beer”.)

To cut a long (20 pages) study short, Professor Fell looked at the contexts in which speakers of Old English used the word beór, and what they used beór as the equivalent of in other languages. It is used to translate a passage in the Gospel of Luke, talking about Zacharias: in Latin “vinum et siceram non bibet“, which became in Old English “He ne drinceÞ win ne beór“. “Sicera, and the Hebrew word it comes from, shekhar, to which we shall return, are translated today in the same Biblical passage as “strong drink”. (I’m not going to translate vinum or win for you, I think you’re smart enough to work out those for yourself.)

Elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon texts beór is given as the equivalent of ydromellum, another word for mead, and it is also glossed as equivalent to mulsum, wine sweetened with honey. Both these drinks are likely to be stronger than ealu, a hint that beór may have been stronger than ealu too. The idea that beór was strong is reinforced by the instruction to pregnant women in one Old English leechdom, or medical tract, that they must not beór drince at all, nor drink anything else to excess.

To rub in the point that ealu and beór were seen as distinct and separate drinks a thousand years ago, Ælfric, abbot of Cerne Abbas in Dorset, who lived from around AD 955 to AD 1010, wrote of John the Baptist in one of his “Homilies” that “ne dranc he naðor ne win, ne beór, ne ealu, ne nan ðæra wætan ðe menn of druncniað,” that is, “nor drank he neither wine, nor beór, nor ale, nor any other liquor that makes men drunk.” Ælfric, who was a conscientious writer, clearly felt he needed to differentiate beór from ealu, as well as ealu from win. Beór, then, comes through from Anglo-Saxon texts as strong and sweet, and different to, or separate, from ealu.

There is also the Irish evidence. In the Irish version of the legend of heather ale, the drink whose secret recipe is known only to a father and son is called bheóir Lochlannach, Lochlann being the Irish for Viking. Bheóir Lochlannach is always translated today as “Viking beer”. However, the word beóir must come from the Old Norse word bjórr. If bjórr was the same as öl, as the OED wants us to accept, why did the Irish feel the need to borrow bjórr to use for the heather brew, instead of using their own language’s equivalents of öl, which were cuirm or, later, lionn? Why was this bheóir Lochlannach and not chuirm Lochlannach or lionn Lochlannach?

Professor Fell put forward a very good argument for beór in Old English (and its equivalent in Old Norse, bjórr) being a strongly alcoholic, sweet, honey-and-fruit drink consumed from tiny cups only an inch or so high: such cups have been found in pagan Anglo-Saxon graves from the sixth and seventh centuries AD. It is possible – indeed, I’d say somewhere between possible and probable – that beór was, in fact, fermented apple juice. The Anglo-Saxons cultivated apples, and it seems unlikely they would not have known how to make an alcoholic drink out of them: ripe apples will practically ferment by themselves. There is, however, no known Old English word that definitely means “cider” – but at more or less the same time that sidre, the word that became “cider”, enters the English language,  in the middle of the 11th century, the word beór disappears.

That’s far from conclusive evidence that the French sidre was brought over by the French-speaking Normans (and Bretons) who settled here after William the Conqueror conquered, and replaced the Old English word beór. It could be just coincidence that one word vanished as the other arrived. Curiously, in Normandy itself, which, of course, takes its name from the Old Norse speakers who settled there and later switched to speaking French, the dialect word for cider is bère.

Sidre/cider comes, via French, Latin and Greek, from the Hebrew shekhar. Shekhar properly means “any strong alcoholic drink” (apparently from shakar, to drink heavily: the Yiddish for “to be drunk” is shiker). What sort of drink Hebrew shekhar was, apart from, presumably, strong, we don’t know (although in Akkadian, the related Semitic language spoken in Babylon 4,000 years ago, the equivalent word, šikarum, translated Sumerian KAŠ, beer: but in the Quran the equivalent word in Arabic, sokara, is used to mean any intoxicant.)

In the time of St Isidore of Seville, who was writing in the late 6th and early 7th centuries AD, sicera was ” omnis potio quae extra vinum inebriare potest”, “all inebriating drinks apart from wine”, which included those made from frumentum (grain) and poma (apples), the saint said. Did Anglo-Saxon writers such as Ælfric know that Isidore’s definition of sicera included it being made from poma and decide that because beór was made from poma too, then beór was the best translation of sicera? This is probably a speculation too far. There is no hard evidence that beór was made from apples and meant cider, and that this influenced in any way the translation of shekhar/sicera into Old English as beór. But I like to think it possible that Ælfric, who came, after all, from a cider-making part of England, included cider, as beór, in his list of drinks that John the Baptist eschewed, alongside wine and ale, just in case any of the Cerne monks thought it was OK to go whacking into the scrumpy.

32 thoughts on “Words for beer (2) – was ‘beer’ originally cider?

  1. […] Zythophile: Words for beer (2) – was ‘beer’ originally cider? To rub in the point that ealu and beór were seen as distinct and separate drinks a thousand years ago, Ælfric, abbot of Cerne Abbas in Dorset, who lived from around AD 955 to AD 1010, wrote of John the Baptist in one of his “Homilies” that “ne dranc he naðor ne win, ne beór, ne ealu, ne nan ðæra wætan ðe menn of druncniað,” that is, “nor drank he neither wine, nor beór, nor ale, nor any other liquor that makes men drunk.” Ælfric, who was a conscientious writer, clearly felt he needed to differentiate beór from ealu, as well as ealu from win. Beór, then, comes through from Anglo-Saxon texts as strong and sweet, and different to, or separate, from ealu. […]

    1. Fascinating article, really good! Anybody out there know the etymology of the Finnish “olut”. It looks, at least, related to the Swedish “öl” and Scandic variants, but is it?

  2. Compelling stuff. So while the Norman gentry accompanied their porc with fine cidre, the Anglo-Saxon peasants outside sat around a roasting pigge getting hammered on beor.

    I remember as a young student of Hebrew puzzling over shekhar in 1 Samuel 1:15. It always gave me that sense of anything bunged into a clay pot and left under the bronze-age radiator for a few weeks. I doubt there was much by way of style guidelines for it.

  3. Martyn, this all makes very good sense, and I was bearing (no pun intended) in mind as you did that the Normans use the popular term “bere” to mean a type of cider (low-strength but most of their cider is today, I think).

    And I agree that in the Old Norse poem mentioned, it makes sense that men and gods might have used different terms to describe not the same, but different things. The suggestion that mead was known to those in “hell” suggests it was viewed as inferior to the fermented drinks available on earth and even more so for what was felt suitable for the gods. While apple ferments have not in recent centuries at least been viewed as having the same status as grape-derived or even cereals-based drinks, things might have been different then. Also, perhaps this beer of the goods was a distilled drink – Calvados certainly has a high status! Finally, can we rule out that beor might have been made from grapes, wild grapes perhaps?

    The only thing that troubles me is that bere as you noted is also a type of grain. It seems a natural thing to think that beer, a fermented drink made today from barley, received its name from a grain (I think it is wild), bere, that at one time was widely used to make an alcoholic drink. Malt whisky was originally made from it I understand.

    But perhaps it was the other way around, maybe the grain received its name from its known ability when fermented to create an intoxicating effect…

    In the end, the use of the extant term “bere” in Normandy (Brittany too? I’m not sure) to mean apple cider seems to me good additional evidence that the original beer or beor of the early English was made from apples.


    1. Gary, my understanding. although I may be wrong, is that the grain “bere” was pronounced more like “barr” (it crops up in words such as “barn”, originally “a place for storing bere”, and “barley”, which originally meant “bere-like”, and the many places called Barton, which mean “farm where bere is grown”), and because of this pronunciation “bere”, etymologically, cannot be the root of “beer”.

  4. The concept of “Hell” in Norse mythology is substantially different than in Christian mythology. There were several levels of Hell, one of them was the place where people who didn’t die in combat went to spend eternity. It might be that beor was drank there by the righteous. And it could very well be apple, after all, in many mythologies the fruit is associated with the immortality of the soul. What the dwarf was talking about, then, must have been the different drinks preferred in the different worlds.

  5. I was interested in your heather ale story. When I was first introduced to it, it was the Scottish version, in which the keepers of the secret were Picts.

  6. http://books.google.ca/books?id=URgsAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA127&dq=beer+and+bere+Hebrew+root&cd=1#v=onepage&q=&f=false

    Here’s an interesting early 1800’s discussion (at page 127) offering the theory that bere, beer, barn, etc., are related to a Hebrew root meaning grain or wheat.

    I can see in some British accents how “bern” could shift to “barn”, but true enough it doesn’t seem easily to accomodate beer as pronounced by any English speaker.

    However the overall discussion is very interesting and the words that seem to relate to bere at least (e.g., burn for creek, bearing in the sense of giving birth) are very numerous.


    1. Mmmm … interesting book, but I think you’ll find the Rev Alexander Pirie isn’t too highly rated by modern etymologists.

  7. Words are fascinating and just in considering that term “sikhye”, I would think sake too must have an origin in shekar.

    When reading Rev. Pirie’s musings, the word brewis caught my eye, a term still extant in Newfoundland. Fish and brewis is a well-known dish there and clearly is an Elizabethan-era survival. Checking up on brewis I found this short note from the Canadian Bill Casselman. This offers food for thought although it does not consider the term beer:


    The Indo-European term mentioned seems possibly to explain various terms which shared the idea of boiling or heating in common: grains (usually) are cooked for food; beer is boiled or “brewed”. True, bere for cider doesn’t check out here since cider is not boiled. But perhaps much cider was boiled at one time, to infuse herbal and other flavours. Or perhaps the term later loosely was applied to any intoxicating drink, at least in some areas.


  8. Gary, I’m not certain, but I doubt whether cider was at any ancient time boiled, because that would kill the natural yeasts that fermented the apple must.

    I suppose like lambic beers, any boil – including a cider, could be left to open to spontaneous fermentation by wild yeasts, but I’ve not heard of that in cider fermentation.

  9. Well, yeast could have been added methodically after, collected from previous ferments (as for beer). I do acknowledge though it is a stretch to think cider was ever boiled.

    What Martyn wrote earlier about cold in its Platonic-medieval sense is intriguing because the Indo-European term Bill Casselman mentioned connotes a heating. Alcoholic drinks in this older sense of hot and cold were regarded as hot – recall that Tryon was concerned that his bottled beer remain hot, not turn cold. Some of this survives today, e.g., Michael Jackson reported in the 1977 World Guide to Beer that stout is regarded in parts of Asia as heating and sometimes is used to bathe new-born infants (perhaps this practice no longer occurs). Birthing is a term said to be related again to the Indo-European root term berye or that effect (my spelling may not be accurate). So birthing, bearing, beer. The idea of heat, energy, generation…

    This way of looking at it would take in bere as cider since the concept is of an alcoholic drink, not a grain-derived one as such.

    Where does that leave the origins of shekar and ale? I don’t know. I guess different terms originated in different places for similar things.


  10. Keep it up mate – this is great stuff which will run and run !

    My only worry is for the cat – did he get to the other side ?

  11. “The Anglo-Saxons cultivated apples, and it seems unlikely they would not have known how to make an alcoholic drink out of them: ripe apples will practically ferment by themselves.”
    I think historically it was more common to grow apples for cider-making than for eating. That was certainly the case in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in the USA, and it seems likely to be true in eras and locales earlier and different than that. You never quite know what kind of apples you’ll get from apple seed (our edible varieties are primarily propagated by grafting), so most apples grown from seed are destined to be turned into juice or cider.

  12. There is some evidence that cider, or cidre, meant fermented juice extracted from fruit other than grapes and was not originally attached specifically to apples.

    Consider this line from 16th C French writer Charles Estienne: “faire le cidre, pommé, peré, cormé” (to make cider, apple, pear, sorb.). Cormé, a low alcohol drink made from the fruit of the true service tree (Sorbus domestica), is considered by many to be cognate with the Gaulish word ‘curmi’. This has been taken to mean beer, but maybe it was true service tree cider, also known as boisson de cormes’. A closely related fruit, that of the wild service or chequer tree (Sorbus torminalis), had a close relationship with Chequers Inns in South East England, but we are not entirely sure why despite many intelligent guesses. Maybe they made chequer tree cider using either pure torminalis juice or mixing it with apple juice cider as is done with true service juice in the highly regarded German Speierling-Apfelwein.

    ‘Curmi’ is supposedly cognate with Irish ‘cuirm’ and Welsh ‘cwrw’ both nowadays words for ‘beer’. Maybe originally they meant fruit cider: was Irish beer originally cider? Was the Welsh diod griafol (rowan drink) one one of this family of beverages? Made from rowan berries John Evelyn said “ale or beer brewed with these berries, being ripe, is an incomparable drink”. In Estonia they crush and press the juice from rowan berries (Sorbus aucuparia) and make a ‘cider’ from it called pihlakavein (rowan wine) for which they clearly have a high regard. Maybe this is what the Welsh were doing, or maybe they were simply adding the berries to beer when they were brewing (as the proprietor of the Chequers in Little Gransden, Hunts, has recently done with wild service fruit).

    Then there is the issue of cerevisia, cervoise in French which appears to have been a barley based drink with various fruit juices, herbs and other stuff (but not hops) added. This, of course, is where the Spanish word ‘cerveza’ meaning ‘beer’ comes from but, in my view, the ‘service’ in ‘service tree’ is not, as is frequently suggested, related to cerevisia, it is simply a corruption of Latin ‘sorbus’.

  13. LOVE your blog mate. Love learning the nuances of beer. Starting May 1 I will be doing an 8 month hike across the U.S to win a one beer bet (hence the website onebeerbet.com that will be following my journey).

  14. I am, as I write, drinking béor (fermented apple juice).

    The difference between béor and bere is the length of the vowel. Now, that may not seem like much to us now, but consider the difference between bitch and beach, sheet and shit.

    Notice that the vowels differ not only in length but in quality. The shorter vowels drop, while the longer vowels stay high. That would explain why berelice became barley.

    Consider also that cider is stupid easy to make – far easier than beer. Get some apples, crush them, collect the juice in a clean container and cover till it’s stopped fizzing and drink. Add some honey – up the alcohol content.

    Also, I’m thinking about the various bits of wisdom from various Norse sources. The idea suggests itself that, rather than offering synonyms, Allvis is grouping similar stuff together – all these things are different but there is something common between them. Possibly something not obvious to your average norse, or perhaps it was and thus the story made the listener feel wise. Groups of alcoholic drinks and groups of grains.

    Also, considering the apple juice boil. You can make cider by adding yeast to apple juice. Most apple juice is pasteurized – meaning it has been heat treated. It ferments to dryness but not quite as dry as non-boiled juice. It’s the difference between cooked apples and fresh apples. Boiling is a neat trick that kills pretty much most of the bad guys, but when it cools, yeast lands in the mixture and ferments whatever it is you want to drink. Humans have been fermenting beverages for longer than we’ve been writing or even farming.

    I wouldn’t rule out anything with our ancestors without trying it first at home. Ferment then comment.

  15. Hi, I’m most grateful for the information in this article. I contacted Leeds and asked for a copy of Christine Fell’s paper. They kindly put it on their website here; https://ludos.leeds.ac.uk/R/SUT83LXC9C4VX9HTALYNHM3IN96GQBMXKJVNKR64BP45MPFSPL-03234
    My personal view is that in Anglo-Saxon times the taste was more important that the fruit/grain base and that ealu/alu denoted ‘bitter’ (as in “a pint of bitter please”) and medu, while originally mead, was likely to have been used for any sweet alcoholic drink. Beor, it seems to me was likely to be a distilled, sweet spirit. While Professor Fell was right in saying that there is no evidence for distillation until Norman times, in these latitudes freeze distillation is not only possible but likely and you only need a bucket for that. Win/wine was of course imported and had been since prehistoric times.

      1. Ah well! Here we enter the realms of philosophy. There are no facts only evidence and opinion. To quote Karl Popper ‘All knowledge is permanently provisional.’ There is evidence but as in all things Anglo-Saxon, the truth is elusive. For example, in the Proto-Indo-European language, which is the origin of almost all European languages ‘al-‘ as a word beginning denotes the concept ‘bitter’ as in ‘alum’ in Old French and ‘aloe’ in old English, both of which mean bitter juice. Is that relevant who knows? The evidence for the production of Anglo-Saxon spirits is all there in the late Christine Fell’s paper, she simply doesn’t put it together with the possibility of the freeze distillation of brewed alcohol. Her evidence from the Leech Book is particularly interesting. If the weights for pints of water/wine/ale/beór are correct and allowing for increases in weight for sugars but decreases in weight for alcohol and compared with the weights of modern spirits of known alcoholic content and estimated suger content, I calculate that sweet beór was about 30% alcohol by volume. Sufficiently strong I suggest to warrant the prohibition of consumption of beór by preganant Saxon ladies and the use by men of small cups such as those found in the grave Sutton Hoo Mound One. These cups are far from complete but though larger than modern ‘shot’ glasses seem to be smaller than a small wine glass. However this is getting a bit ‘off subject’ so I’ll stop there.

  16. Hallo! Bjórr comes from “bitter” Beer was originally sweet “Alu” (Fermented) in Norwegian for exemple beer is “maltöl” ( fermented of malt)

    1. I’d very much like to see your evidence for these claims, which seem to me, from all that I have read, to be deeply unlikely. So, sorry, don’t believe you.

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