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Q From Ellen Smithee: At a recent re-enactment of the infamous shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, the narrator claimed that the term a shot of whiskey comes from paying for drinks with bullets. (He displayed his empty ammo belt as evidence of this.) Is this true?

A Heavens — the curse of the tourist guide hits etymology once again. They’re a wonderful breed, these guides, but they’re capable of unblushingly telling the most extraordinary stories about word origins. No, this one most certainly isn’t true.

But it’s an odd word when you stop to think about it. What possible connection could there be between shot and a measure of drink? The truth is that your term, and the more common one that’s linked with the verb to shoot in many different senses, come from two different sources.

The whiskey shot actually derives from an ancient Scandinavian word that became the Old English scéotan, to pay or contribute. Its more direct descendent is scot (which, of course, has nothing to do with the Scots) and which we still have in the phrase scot free, to get away from a situation without suffering punishment or injury; the original sense was “not required to pay scot”.

But scot also became known and spelled as shot, because the Old English pronunciation of scéotan was with an initial sh, not sk. It developed several senses and associated idioms meaning paying or contributing, most of which closely parallel those of scot and are now defunct. For example, shot could once mean one’s share of the bill at an entertainment or at an inn, from which came to stand shot, to pay the bill for everyone. As a related idea, the shot could be one’s contribution to a fund to pay for some purpose, often like the modern drinkers’ pub kitty.

There was also a seventeenth-century sense of a supply or amount of drink, this presumably being from the idea that the supply was the result of everybody’s clubbing together by paying shot. There’s a big gap between that and the modern sense of a specific serving of strong liquor. The first example in the Oxford English Dictionary is a 1928 quote from P G Wodehouse. But it is older — I’ve found an instance in a story of 1912 and it’s almost certainly earlier still (it’s not the easiest word to search for, you will appreciate). We have to assume that it had been lurking in the spoken language for generations without being much noticed.

But, I say again, nothing to do with bullets.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 14 Jan. 2006

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 14 January 2006.