Etymology of "ebrius"?
March 28, 2011 4:22 PM   Subscribe

Does anyone know the origin of the latin word "ebrius" which roughly translates into "inebriated" in English?

Etymological dictionary online says that "sober" comes from "sobrius" meaning "without inebriation".It suggests that "se" means "without" but unfortunately states that "ebrius" is of origin unknown.

Anyone have any clues or possibilities for this? I would love to know if "ebrius" originally referred to some sort of physical object that suggested the state of being taken up or caught up in elation (like a boat or something?).

Thank you for any help.
posted by fantasticninety to Writing & Language (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
According to everyone's favorite Latin dictionary, Lewis and Short, ebrius means "full up" or "sated," which was then understood to mean "full up with booze." Per my understanding, it was then so commonly understood to mean drunk so that one would read it as "drunk with love" rather than filled with love. It looks to me that it refers more to being brimming full rather than an object being swept away.

Here's the link if you want to poke about for yourself. I can't delve into the Greek.

If languagehat says something different, don't listen to me.
posted by chatongriffes at 4:30 PM on March 28, 2011

Response by poster: Well, this is just fascinating. Thank you for the link, as it led me to the Greek link and after some further delving, there are two possibilties (both delightful).

1. fryn (brius = fres) meant reasoning powers or your good judgment with your mind (we have in modern French "freins" for brakes, i.e. stopping yourself from doing something stupid)
2. frear = cistern for water

So, either it meant the idea of not stopping yourself or that you were drinking too much from the cistern (excess).

Obviously it's possible that there's a different explanation, but for now those two are lovely to consider!

In case anyone hasn't followed this explanation completely, "brius" comes from those greek words. "ebrius" meant the opposite, and so "sober" could potentially be a double negative meaning freedom the excess of not controlling yourself!
posted by fantasticninety at 5:06 PM on March 28, 2011

One of the references I found was bria=vas vinarium (wine jug)
posted by francesca too at 5:38 PM on March 28, 2011

First, the best word on this is unfortunately the one you'd already gotten: according to Ernout and Meillet's etymological dictionary, the derivation of this word is unknown. The ancient etymology derives it from an otherwise almost unknown word (bria, mentioned above), meaning 'cup', and then it would be something like the English phrase 'in one's cups'. However, this word is itself only attested twice (and only once certainly; the other is an emendation not found in the original manuscript), and bria is likely a back-formation from ebrius (the folk etymologies of the grammarians are in general little to be trusted). The etymology of sobrius is likewise obscure (other than that it is clearly related to ebrius).

[As I cannot find a copy of Ernout-Meillet online anywhere, I will refer you to a summary of the state of knowledge given by René Martin in "Le vocabulaire Latin de l'ébriété et de l'ivrognerie et sa posterité," Pallas 53: 2000, 17-28, where he discusses ebrius in the first section: it's on Google Books with preview.]

Second, wild speculations. I pass without comment Bernal's suggestion in Black Athena that it's from an Egyptian root ybr meaning 'plant, drug'. (On Google books here.)

The way I read it, L&S are not suggesting that ebrius derives from the Greek phrēn (note: we generally transliterate ancient Greek with 'ph', not 'f', unlike modern Gk.), but rather that both derive from the same root. Otherwise, I would think that a rather odd suggestion on their part; as is, Chantraine does not support this derivation, for he does not list ebrius among derivatives of phrēn, while he does note Latin phrenticus. According to Chantraine, phrēn's etymology is likewise not secure: cognates are not known (although someone has posited a Germanic cognate). I am seeing no reason to connect it with ebrius.

[Chantraine, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue Grecque, s.v. phrēn, is actually online at]

French freins comes from L. frena, 'reins', which is from a different root entirely.

Gk. phrear 'well' also is not related, being from a different root entirely.

Anyway, sorry to have a mostly negative answer! I do wonder where the note in L&S linking it to phrēn came from!
posted by lysimache at 7:24 PM on March 28, 2011

Lewis and Short is completely outdated and no longer worth consulting now that the Oxford Latin Dictionary is available; even when L&S was the cutting edge in dictionaries, its etymologies were largely guesses, and now they're obsolete guesses. The OLD sensibly does not give an etymology for the word. Many thanks to lysimache for doing the legwork and showing that there is no accepted etymology, which is true of a great many words. Sorry your quest has to end like this!

(Side note: Bernal is an idiot who knows nothing and cares less about accurate etymology and linguistics; his only goal is to prove that everything came from Black Africa, and he'll use any means at hand to do it, not to mention slandering all previous researchers as racists. He can go straight to hell.)
posted by languagehat at 7:15 AM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Obviously it's possible that there's a different explanation, but for now those two are lovely to consider!

If possibilities excite you, sounds like you might find this one (from brig, briu, brio) entertaining then and if the origin was actually of celtic origin it would make perfect sense. I kid. There is also this amusing one:

"—'There is a very ingenious analysis of this word, given by Clel. Way. 62, where he fays, " in my present View I shall only consider Liber as a name of Bacchus; discovering that ib, or ibb in Celtic signifies drinking, being the radical of bibo; of ebrius; of yvre, in French; and of our bibber, at second hand from bibo; I begin with rejecting the initial L, as being only the prepositive particle; this gives iber, drunkard; and the synthesis restoring the L, produces the orthography liber, the drunkard: this derivation may be false, but will any one say it is forced ?"—yet still it may be Gr."

(curiosity killed the cat disclaimer: being a native portuguese speaker, this post made me wonder if there was any relationship between ébrio and brio)
posted by lucia__is__dada at 10:39 AM on March 29, 2011

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