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From: "Edward Keenan" <KeenanE@doaks.org>
Subject: RE: 7183-MacKinnon
Date: Fri, 16 May 2003

Dear David,

May I correct some long-standing and wide-spread misconceptions that have now been repeated in your #7183, in Mark MacKinnon's "Vodka turns 500 with toasts to joy and misery?"

I refer to his statements: "Vodka, many believe, was first created by Russian monks mixing alcohol and water (the name vodka is derived from voda, the Russian word for water) in search of new medicines. As the drink turns 500 years old this year, many are pondering the mixed blessings that the spirit has brought its many patrons in this county."

I urge your readers not to join the "many" who "believe" these statements; they are all extremely questionable. The real Russian diminutives for water, "voditsa," "vodichka," bear stresses on the second syllable, indicating their derivation from R. "voda." "Vodka," by contrast, retains its original, Polish, penultimate stress, indicating its pathway into Russian. (The derived Russian diminutives -- "vodochka," etc., preserve this stress in their own way, but now according to Russian, not Polish stress rules.) The Russian word "vodka" is apparently not attested in its modern meaning before 1666; in the meaning "alcohol" or "medical infusion" it seems to appear around 1600. (Barkhudarov et al., "Slovar'...", 2:253 show a "1535" use, but their reference is to a single copy of a Novgorod chronicle written on paper dated after 1596 -- and at any rate their passage should be read "alcohol;" one is cleaning a wound.)

The historical context, of course, has to do with the introduction of the technologies needed for distillation, as distinct from fermentation -- a sixteenth-century matter, at least as far as Eastern Europe is concerned. Of course, East Slavs drank fermented alcoholic beverages ("med," "braga," "pivo") long before the word "vodka" -- or stills -- appeared. (And they probably had some distilled alcohol rather before our earliest attestation of the word: in the later 16th century the Muscovites were apparently attempting to recruit Tatar allies by sending a still ("kotel") to the Nogai Tatars. Cf. analogous deployment of "firewater" in colonial America.)

It will perhaps save others time if I point out that the current standard (if archaic) historical-etymological dictionaries for Russian (Vasmer, Preobrazhenskii) do not have entries for the word. Vladimir Dal', as one might expect, does, but he is simply not to be trusted half the time.

Thus: no 500 years; no Russian monks; no Russian derivation.

I take no position on the other elements of his article.


Edward L. Keenan
Andrew W. Mellon Professor of History, Harvard University
Director, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections
1703 32nd. Street, NW, Washington, DC 20007

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