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A cutesy use of the word libation is becoming popular with restaurateurs. I heard a radio spot for a local eatery of no particular elegance advertising “food and libations.”

Pinterest has a category called “Elegant Food and Libations,” and numerous restaurants advertising on the web offer libations. One of them has made sure that potential customers know the meaning of the L word by posting the anticipated question and its answer on its home page:

What are Libations?
“They are drinks!”

Until the 17th century, when some classically educated young gentleman thought it would be funny to call wine intended to be drunk by his guests “libations,” the word’s standard use was to refer to an ancient religious practice.

libation: noun. The pouring out of wine or other liquid in honor of a god; the liquid so poured out; a drink-offering.

Libation is from the Latin verb libare, “to libate, to pour out in honor of a god.” The usual liquid to pour out in the context of honoring a god or one’s ancestors is wine or some other alcoholic drink, although a libation can be any liquid. Water is poured out by Buddhists. In ancient Rome, milk was poured out to the goddess of childbirth.

In addition to being offered to deities, libations were poured out in honor of one’s ancestors. Relatives visiting a Roman necropolis might pour a libation directly onto a grave, or into pipes installed for the purpose.

The practice of pouring an offering of liquid onto the ground, an altar, an amulet, or a sacrificial animal has been a part of religious practice in all parts of the world. It continues into modern times in various religious and cultural contexts.

A Cuban custom is to spill a drop or two of rum, while saying “para los santos (for the saints).” A similar custom exists in the Philippines, where someone opening a bottle of rum will spill a capful, saying “para sa yawa (for the Devil).”

The following rap lyrics refer to a libation practice called “tipping,” in which malt liquor is spilled on the ground in memory of the dead:

“Pour out a little liquor”
Pour out a little liquor for your homies… –2Pak

Going down the drain I’d like to keep stepping
But I can’t get past the pain, I tip my 40 to your memory
Take a drink and I start to think… –DRS Gangsta Lean

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8 thoughts on “Libation”

  1. Considering the time of year, I am suprised you did not mention this custom: wassailers may pour cider from the latest batch onto the ground at the base of the apple trees, so that the bear fruit (and so more cider the next year).

  2. Thank you very much. I remembered why I was twitchy when people started throwing that word around without really thinking about the meaning.

    I guess it means will have to bring around the portable altar to these places to make sure they get it right. I wonder what they would feel about live chicken sacrifices to make this really work?

    Or: They could just stop using the word…Just saying.

  3. Maeve ~ did you omit the article before the word ‘restaurateur’ for a reason? Is it just a typo or a short-coming on my end?

    Also, with respect to the lyrics, “I tip my 40 to your memory”, any idea what the “40” refers to?

    Great article. Thanks.

  4. John,
    No, I failed to make “restaurateur” plural. It will be corrected.

    According to what I’ve read, the “40” refers to a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor.

  5. A fine joke about the old meaning of “libation” !

    Two Irishmen had been dear friends for decades,** and they were both getting old. “Mr. A” said to “Mr. B”:
    Here is a bottle of the finest Irish whiskey. If I die before you do, I want you to open the bottle and sprinkle its contents over my grave.
    Mr. B replied, “All right, but do you mind if I pass it through my kidneys beforehand?”

    **You may change this joke to “Scotsmen” and “a bottle of Scotch” if you choose.
    This joke also works with two Kentuckyians and a bottle of bourbon, or with two Canadians and a bottle of Canadian Club.

  6. Is the word “cutesy” Standard English now?
    I still consider “cutesy” to be low-level slang or even babytalk.
    “Cutesy pie” Ouch!

  7. It’s Kentuckians. No Y. Can the joke work with 2 Russians and a bottle of vodka? What about 2 Poles and bottle of vodka– do you have to specify Polish vodka (wodka)- the Scotsmen and the bottle of Scotch whisky as opposed to whiskey in general makes me think probably so. So the the joke only works with 2 Irishmen if you say Irish whiskey, which you carefully did. What about rum? Two Cubans and bottle of Cuban rum is funny, but 2 Cubans and bottle of Barbadian rum is not funny (partly because the audience get distracted by the question of what is a Barbadian), and just to say 2 Cubans and a bottle of rum leaves you not knowing if it’s funny or not. So it’s awkward. Two Cubans and a bottle of whiskey is even worse, but we don’t need to confuse things even more into ridiculousness!

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