Whiskey is the Water of Life and Other Word Origin Stories

By Moriah Kofsky

I dig etymology because it refers to the origin stories of words versus their definitions. Having a strong command of language is empowering and (I believe) essential to being a great writer. But I’m especially drawn to the stories behind words because, as I’ve learned from working at a Storytelling Agency, good stories evoke emotion that increases our empathy response and retention of information.

This is because when we read a list of facts, only the language parts (Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas) of our brains are used. When we read stories, the language parts of our brain and every other part of our brain — the parts that would activate as if we were actually experiencing the story — turn on.

Here are some words whose stories stuck with me:


The phonetically goofy word “pumpernickel” can be broken down into two German words: pumper and nickel. Pumper means “fart” while nickel means devil or imp, implying that pumpernickel means something like, “fart devil.” Pumpernickel bread was given to German soldiers during the Thirty Years’ War and apparently caused gnarly indigestion.

RE: Pumpernickel — the OG Taco Bell.


This word is a literal translation of the Chinese phrase HSI NAO, “to wash the brain.” I don’t know about you but I would prefer for my brain not to be bathed, thanks.

“Brainwashing” is mostly associated with science fiction nowadays (IE, Black Mirror & Get Out) although it’s rooted in politics. During Mao’s reign, it was used to describe coercive persuasion aimed to transform individuals with an imperialist mindset into “right-thinking” Chinese citizens. The word was then adapted as a military term in the Korean War to explain how autocratic regimes systematically indoctrinated prisoners of war through propaganda and torture. ~Shivers~


Whiskey is the shortened version of whiskeybae, which derives from the Old English “usquebae.” Usquebae is made up of uisce (water) and bethu (life). TLDR: whiskey is the water of life. True.


The verb “gaslighting” comes from the 1944 mystery-thriller film Gaslight about a woman whose husband gradually manipulates her into thinking she’s insane. In Gaslight, a husband regularly sneaks into the attic to rummage through his wife’s belongings in the hopes of stealing her jewels. He turns the attic light on which reduces the flow of the gas to the downstairs lights and causes them to flicker. The wife pleads she saw the lights flickering but her husband convinces her she imagined it.


In Roman mythology, the plural, lemurs, means the spirits of the departed. This is a reference to their specter-like face characterized by orange bug-eyes with tiny pupils. Lemurs look like they are in an enteral trance. Yet these spirits of the departed look adorable sunbathing!


“Avocado” comes from the Aztec word “ahuacatl” which means testicle. Apart from the similar shape, avocados are also known as aphrodisiacs, living up to their rep as “the good kind of fat.”


The first recording of the word “Kangaroo” was on August 4th 1770 in British explorer Captain Cook’s journal. Allegedly, Captain Cook was scouting Australia when he spotted a seemingly over-sized bunny. He asked an indigenous Australian “what’s that?!” but he or she had no idea what Cook said. The Australian responded in his or her native language, “I don’t know,” which apparently sounded like kangaroo.

Moriah Kofsky is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, let Woden help. Download our free StorytellingBlueprint, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.

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