Mashed Radish turned five this week—and of course I forgot its birthday. Surely I was lost in the origin of some word or another.
Still, the occasion calls for some celebration. Since we’re marking five years, why don’t we toast with some punch?
From Hindi to Hawaiian
The drink punch is traditionally derived from the Sanskrit word pañca, “five,” based on an Indian beverage made with five ingredients: spirits, water, the juice of lemons or limes, sugar, and spices.
In the 17th century, when the word is first recorded, English sailors are said to have imported punch to Europe, where it was served warm with wine or brandy before rum became all the rage.
For most of us today, we see punch as an occasional and quaint party beverage or the red, kid-friendly fruit punch.
Historically, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) led the way in questioning this Sanskrit etymology. Its argument rested on the fact that the Sanskrit pañca (panch in its daughter tongue, Hindi) had the vowel of put and should have yielded something more like paunch in English.
But as of its Third Edition in 2007, the OED settles on “apparently a borrowing from Sanskrit,” specifically pañcāmṛta, the “five nectars (of the gods).” Pañca, here, is “five,” and āmṛta, the plural form of “nectar” and connected to ambrosia (literally “not dead”).
Pañcāmṛta was a medicinal concoction comprised milk, curd, butter (ghee), honey, and sugar (molasses). And this is a far cry from its descendant familiar to American school children, Hawaiian Punch, which is principally two ingredients, water and high fructose corn syrup.
What I find even more incredible—and what has motivated me ever since I launched this blog on May 7, 2013 back in Minneapolis, Minnesota—is that punch doesn’t just likely come from the Sanskrit word for “five.” It essentially is the word five.
Punching up the figures
The Proto-Indo-European root for “five” is *penkwe–. This base alone is an education in Indo-European sound changes.
It became pente in Greek, which lives on in English words like pentagon, pentathlon, and Pentecost. It became quinque in Latin, which shows up in cinquain, the game keno, quintessential, or quintet. In Old English, *penkwe– was fif, which we can spot in fifteen, fifth, and fifty. The P > F transformation is a hallmark of the Germanic languages, and the pronunciation of five as [fahyv] (vs. the original [ee], with F sometimes conditioned into a V sound) is a textbook example of the Great Vowel Shift.
Other derivatives of *penkwe– include fist, clenched together with our five fingers—something I can no longer count on when it comes to Mashed Radish, with just shy of 11,000 followers and 500 posts. This one marks #495. I really should have coordinated #500 at 5 years, but blogging, like word origins, seldom lines up so neatly.
I can’t thank you all enough for your readership and support over the years, and I look forward to getting punch-drunk on many more etymologies with you in the time to come.
And oh, punch-drunk isn’t because someone spiked the punch.
Dating back to the early 1900s, punch-drunk was originally the wooziness a boxer experienced from too many punches to the head. That punch is from the Latin pungere, furnishing words like puncture and pounce.