November 21, 2014

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The Etymology of Enology: A lesson in Greek Mythology

I’m an Enologist.

When I tell people my occupation it almost always needs a follow-up response: “I study wine” or “I make wine.” Americans, generally speaking, are unfamiliar with this word. My guess is this is largely because it isn’t a job that is in high demand around here. When I was living abroad, I almost never had this problem. I’m guessing if I was a brew master (or lived in California) it wouldn’t be an issue. Alas, here is my attempt to remedy it.

In case you weren’t aware, I will point out that this is one of those English words that is spelled differently in America than in England (as well as all the Commonwealth countries). They spell it with an ‘O’ to make it an Oenologist who studies Oenology. The British seem to like these extra vowels. They will shop in a catalogue and use an encyclopaedia to look up midiaeval history. I’d like to believe that it is because the British secretly are in love with the French.* Why else would they insist on using the French spelling for words like colour and banque?  Generally I prefer American English, but in the instance of the word Oenology, I will have to say I side with the Brits.

In French, the word for someone who studies wine is œnologue. Notice that there is a ligature between the ‘o’ and the ‘e.’ This is the Latin alphabet letter: Œ. It is used to represent the Greek dipthong οι in both English and French. In the case of the word oenology, the root word comes from the Greek word Οἰνώ (Œno/Oeno), the name of a deity who had the ability to turn water into wine (sound familiar?).

Oeno has quite an impressive family tree. For one, she is the grand-daughter of Dionysus (known by the Romans as Bacchus). He was the god of the grapevine, wine, and the grape harvest among other things. Another interesting side note is that he was also half-mortal: his father was Zeus and his mother was a human who was apparently literally ripped to shreds by Zeus’ wife, Hera, when she learned of the affair (lesson: don’t mess with the gods).  It was Dionysus who granted Oeno the power to turn water into wine. Along with her sisters, Spermo and Elias, who had the abilities to make wheat and olive oil, respectively, they made sure the people around them never had to starve. They also were an important part of the Trojan war, as they stocked the ships of the Greek soldiers with food for their journey to Troy (Apparently the 3 major food groups in ancient Greece were wine, bread, and olive oil – I’ll drink to that!).

Americans (more specifically Noah Webster) removed the ‘O’ from ‘oe’ combinations in order to simplify Greek and Latin classic spellings. In some sense, it is a shame that this has happened, as we lose some of the history of a word. Sometimes, American simplification of things that carried over from Britain work out for the better – such as with the invention of baseball (for those of you who disagree, try sitting through a 5-day cricket match). However, after hearing the story of Oeno, and how important she was to the Greeks and wine history, it almost makes me want to use the British spelling.


*Before I offend an Englishman (or an Etymologist), I will point out that I know the history of the evolution of English language is one that is complex and fascinating. I joke that they secretly love the French, but it is a bit tongue-in-cheek, and done purely to offend an Englishman. For anyone who is interested in learning more about the evolution of the English language, I advise you to read Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson. Then you will learn the real reasons why these spelling differences exist.