Sack, Hock, Plonk, and Claret

Golly do the English ever drink a lot of wine. To be sure, the average Frenchman or Italian drinks more than twice as much wine as the Englishman,[1] but since France and Italy produce about a hundred thousand times as much wine as England, their own quest for the sauce has been less dramatic.[2] While the British became expert at finding the best wines the rest of the world had to offer,[3] the majority of the Island’s people were grimly determined to mispronounce the names of all these worldly goods. This has led to a selection of strange sounding generic terms; categories so broad that a typical London wine shop could have done with just three or four labels to cover all the wine in the world.

Sack

It’s 1587; the British navy is in the first bloom of its strength, winning the ocean waves with great seamanship and constant, naked piracy tactical brilliance. Sir Francis Drake, a famous pirate admiral of the Elizabethan era, took his fleet into the prosperous Spanish port of Cadiz and stole everything he could lay his grubby hands on. Among his loot were thousands of barrels of sherry – a wine the Brits called sack – that was supposed to give liquid courage to the Spanish armada that was then gathering to knock the Protestant snot out of the English crown.[4]

Sack – which was probably generally sweet, and named for the Spanish verb sacar (to draw out, or, to export) was already popular in England, despite all the war, but once Drake sailed into Plymouth Harbor with a hold full of lifted Spanish sack, it became an overnight sensation, a symbol of English kickassitude. Thus, Sherry, in this oddly named form and in a creamy sweet style, became popular in England and in some circles remains so to this day.

Claret

England and France spent most of the time between 1066 and 1900 either at war or thinking of reasons to go to war. Since the English kings were descended from France’s most powerful non-king noble, England sort of owned large chunks of France, and they were not absentee landlords.

One of these chunks was Aquitaine, where the capital city of Bordeaux was gaining a reputation for a clear light red wine – to modern eyes a rose – called clairet. This was soon rendered in English as simply claret[5]. If you’ve ever wondered why so many famous Bordeaux Chateaus have such English sounding names, that’s because the nobles of Bordeaux were mostly English throughout the middle ages, and if they made wine, it was usually shipped to London.

The wine itself has changed quite a bit. In the eighteenth century, with the advent of better winery technology, land management and demand for wine that wasn’t awful, the “New Claret” producers traded in their light, crisp rose wines for dark, tannic, complex and age worthy wines we still regard as some of the best in the world. Claret remains the standard word for Bordeaux blends, and even old style Claret Jugs are still with us as cricket trophies.

Hock 

This term has evolved so far away from its origin that it can be used as a verb; to hock is to sell something both cheap and overpriced. Almost no one remembers that there’s a town in Germany called Hochheim, where grows a fair amount of high quality Riesling. Located just off the Rheine river at about the midpoint of All of Germany’s far flung wine country, this town emerged in the fifteenth century as the center of Germany’s wine export trade. From humble beginnings, when German wines constituted an occasional alternative to the Alsatian white wines, the flow of wine from Germany grew just as Britain started importing their royal family from Germany. When it came into contact with London English, hochheimer became hockamer then hogmar then, finally, hock; and when at first it referred only to wine from the middle Rheine, by the 19th century, any white wine from Germany was hock; and most of it was terrible, which only made it more popular.[6]

Plonk

This term is a relatively modern example of the English language accosting a perfectly innocent French word. Australian soldiers fighting in France during World War One could not cope with the nasal sound in vin blanc, and slowly flattened it out, and did traditional Australian wordplay things to it.[7] Oddly, Plonk just happened to be soldier slang for mud. By the Second World War, the lowest ranked crewmen in the British Air force were nicknamed A/C Plonk, the lowest of the low. By war’s end, it was understood that the same went for Plonk wine. No longer a term reserved for white wines, plonk is now common shorthand for serviceable but bland wines of all sorts.

So next time someone asks about Pie Nut Nor, Rice Ling, or Mare Lot; remember that destroying the words of other languages is a English tradition older than Empire.


[1] While traditionally, continental Europeans drank lots of wine and not a lot else, the English went to some trouble to conquer their archipelago for all the Irish beer and Scotch whiskey, and then colonized the Caribbean in search of rum.

[2] Not strictly true in France’s case, but most of the intrigue has been self-inflicted, thus beyond the scope of our story.

[3] So rapacious was their search for more and cheaper wine that they eventually started shipping Italian and German people to Australia and South Africa to plant new vineyards.

[4] Of course, in 1588 the Spanish Armada submitted one of the all-time worst performances of a heavy favorite; just ahead of the Persians at Salamis, and just behind the undefeated 2007 New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Who can say how it would have gone if the sailors had had a wee dram in their gullets, but history shows that it’s much easier to do dumb things like not run away from burning ships when you’re drunk.

[5] English = French + German – Vowels

[6] German wine has always had an abusive relationship with the law of supply and demand. In tiny quantities, German wines are some of the best and most distinctive in the world. When pressed to churn out huge quantities, the finely balanced ecology of German vineyards fail to produce properly ripened grapes, and the result is some of the world’s blandest wine.

[7] Thankfully, intermediate terms like ‘plinketty plonk’ and ‘blinky blinky’ did not last.

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