Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

A Story of "Grog" That Won't Leave You Groggy

For my latest appearance on the Slate podcast Lexicon Valley, I take a look at a word with an origin story that seems too good to be true: grog, an alcoholic concoction, typically of rum and water, that has been making sailors groggy since the 18th century.

While the hosts of Lexicon Valley, Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield, guessed that grog dated back to medieval times or the early Renaissance, we can actually pinpoint its origin to the 1740s, at a time when the British and Spanish were battling in the West Indies in a series of nautical skirmishes that would come be to be known by a curious name: The War of Jenkins' Ear (after a captain who lost his ear to the Spaniards).

In August 1740, the commander of the British royal fleet in the West Indies, Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon, issued a decree modifying the sailors' ration of rum. Previous to that, the daily ration was half a pint of "neat" (undiluted) rum twice a day, which for obvious reasons was causing a great deal of trouble. Admiral Vernon ruled:

To Captains of the Squadron! Whereas the Pernicious Custom of the Seamen drinking their Allowance of Rum in Drams, and often at once, is attended by many fatal Effects to their Morals as well as their Health, the daily allowance of half a pint a man is to be mixed with a quart of water, to be mixed in one Scuttled Butt kept for that purpose, and to be done upon Deck, and in the presence of the Lieutenant of the Watch, who is to see that the men are not defrauded of their allowance of Rum.

The diluted rum was given a name derived from Vernon's nickname: Old Grog. The admiral was called that because of the cloak he tended to wear, which was made out of a rough fabric called grogram. Grogram in turn comes from the French gros-grain, literally "rough textured," for a fabric made of silk mixed with mohair and wool and often stiffened with gum. (Grosgrain, with the original French spelling, continues to circulate, naming a kind of stiff fabric used for ribbons.)

This is the kind of "just-so" story that would normally make etymologists extremely dubious. But there has been no evidence found for grog preceding Admiral Vernon's 1740 order, and all the contemporary examples seem to square with the Vernon explanation. The earliest print evidence that has been found for grog was published in 1749, and it was discovered recently by Stephen Goranson, the very same word researcher who found the earliest known example of get one's goat, the topic of my previous appearance on Lexicon Valley. It comes from a first-hand account of the British-Spanish conflict in the West Indies:

The next Day, we met a Spanish Sloop form Cadiz, going into the Havaana, who told us of the Peace: I cursed him for coming in our Way, for we should have gone and taken all the Galleons else and been as rich as Princes. I am sure we deserved it, for we lived a Short Allowance all the Cruize, and but two Quarts of Water a Day, to make it hold out in Hopes of meeting them (but short Allowance of Grog was worst of all) and now we have brought this Prize here, we are told she will be given up to the Spaniards again, so we have fought them for nothing.
—"An exact Account of the late Action fought between Admiral Knowles and the Spanish Admiral," from the Jamaica Gazette. Reprinted in the Whitehall Evening Post or London Intelligencer, Jan. 31, 1749.

The earliest known connection of grog to the outerwear of Admiral Vernon appears in a poem by Dr. Thomas Trotter, the surgeon for the HMS Berwick. Dr. Trotter penned this verse while on board the Berwick, on Aug. 4, 1781:

A mighty bowl on deck he drew,
And filled it to the brink;
Such drank the Burford's gallant crew,
And such the gods shall drink.
The sacred robe which Vernon wore
Was drenched within the same;
And hence his virtues guard our shore,
And Grog derives its name.

And by 1796, the Vernon story was so commonly accepted that Francis Grose referred to it in his slang compendium, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue:

GROG. Rum and water. Grog was first introduced into the navy about the year 1740, by Admiral Vernon, to prevent the sailors intoxicating themselves with their allowance of rum, or spirits.

Grose also noted that groggy (or groggified) could mean "drunk." Evidence for the intoxicated sense of groggy dates back to 1770, when an item in The Gentleman's Magazine recounted "eighty names for having drunk too much." One of them was groggy: "this is a West-Indian Phrase; Rum and Water, without sugar, being called Grogg." About a half century later, groggy started being used to describe "punch-drunk" boxers staggering around the ring as if drunk, and from there we get the modern foggy-headed meaning of groggy.

While the tale of Vernon's grog stands on its own, it's interesting to note a couple of other groggy-sounding names for alcoholic beverages. One is glögg, a Swedish term for mulled wine (spelled gløgg in Norwegian and Danish) — see James Harbeck's Sesquiotica blog for more on that.

Another similar-sounding word is appropriate for the Yuletide season: eggnog. As I explained in a Word Routes column in 2009, a common (but mistaken) origin story for eggnog is that it is short for "egg 'n' grog." In fact, grog had nothing to do with it: nog was already an English regionalism for strong beer in the late seventeenth century, and eggnog emerged as an American drink for Christmastime about a century after that. For those who partake, go easy on the nog or grog this year!

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.