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Word stories: ‘rum’

The word rum is first recorded in 1654 in the Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, where it is mentioned along with another of its names kill-devil:

Berbados Liquors, commonly called Rum, Kill Deuill, or the like.

The word itself is of obscure origin, being somehow related to rumbullion and rumbustion, words whose origins are similarly unknown. ‘Kill-devil’, an equally fanciful name, is also first recorded in this period with reference to the drink. From these unclear intriguing-sounding beginnings, rum soon became ubiquitous and was to play a central role in many different spheres.

There are only two main senses of rum n. 2—one describing the distinctive molasses-based spirit, and an extended North American sense in which ‘rum’ is used to describe any strong liquor. The entry lists several compounds, however, and it is by looking at these and at entries elsewhere in the OED that one gains a snapshot of the history of the drink and what it has represented at various points in this history.

‘Now splice the mainbrace’

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries rum was economically important in North America and Europe, being both a valuable export and a medium of exchange. Rum also became a mainstay in the British, and later in the United States, navies where it was issued as part of a sailor’s rations (compare ‘navy rum’ and navy n. 5d) and when mixed with water was known as ‘grog’. The importance of rum to sailors can be seen from the following rum-related nautical expressions:

  • mainsheet n. 2
  • to splice the mainbrace
  • sippers n.
  • Nelson’s blood

The mainsheet was a key component of a ship’s rigging and would have been handled many times a day (compare quot. 1882 at mainsheet, n. 2); its figurative use to describe rum seems to have developed along the lines of mainstay, n. 2 in which a vital part of a ship is used figuratively for anything of importance.

Although it was such a mainstay (or ‘mainsheet’) for sailors, rum was rationed, with extra servings being given as a reward or in celebration; these occasions gave rise to the slang expressions ‘to splice the mainbrace’ and sippers. Again we can see through the colourful language, and the fact that such activities had their own slang expressions in the first place, the significance rum had in nautical life.

Finally, Nelson’s blood, another slang term for rum, may have its origin in the story of the admiral’s body being transported home in a ‘cask of spirits’. The construction, however, is commonly used to describe various drinks metaphorically, and other examples are ‘mother’s ruin’, ‘mother’s milk’, and ‘tiger’s milk’. (One can find these and other terms for alcoholic drinks by clicking on the link to the Historical Thesaurus of the OED to the right of the definition.)

‘The demon rum’

The second sense of rum n.2 is defined as ‘Intoxicating liquor in general’, with a note describing how it is chiefly used in polemical contexts. A number of slang and colloquial compounds have arisen from this association of rum with hard-drinking, especially in the United States and Caribbean.

A person could be described as a ‘rumhound’, ‘rumpot’, or ‘rum-sucker’, the effects of such drinking could result in a ‘rum-bud’ or a ‘rum nose’ (or make one ‘rum-crazed’ or ‘rum-soaked’), and one could obtain one’s alcohol from a ‘rum hole’, ‘rum house, ‘rum joint’, or ‘rum mill’.

During the prohibition era there was a thriving trade in illegal alcohol which in turn gave rise to more colloquial compounds: these include ‘rum baron’, ‘rum-chaser’, ‘rum fleet’, ‘rum row’, and ‘rum runner’.

‘A cheerer of rum-toddy’

Despite the large amount of derogatory compounds in which rum is associated with alcoholism, dissipation, and illegality, the entry also contains plenty of more neutral compounds illustrating some of the many rum-based foods and drinks one can enjoy, such as ‘rum and raisin’, ‘rum baba’, ‘rum ball’, ‘rum butter’, ‘rum cocktail’, ‘rum jelly’, ‘rum punch’, ‘rum sour’, and ‘rum toddy’.

This article originally appeared on OED: Word stories.