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shameless pleading

Shandygaff

I just tell folks that I’m holding out for bacon-flavored Guinness stout. They usually nod and back slowly away.

Dear Word Detective: As I ponder the year-over-year increase in seasonal beers, I am sipping a “lemon shandy” and wondering about the origin of the drink name. A quick search gets me to “shandygaff,” but then the trail gets cold and my shandy grows warm. Can you help? — John.

Perhaps. But I should warn you that I am severely beer-ignorant. I decided early on that I really didn’t like the stuff. I probably should have tried harder, but I didn’t realize until way too late that I was cutting myself off from great swaths of life in the US. Some major elements of American culture, such as football, the Eagles and Steve Carell movies, can apparently be properly appreciated only after imbibing mind-numbing quantities of beer. Oh well, maybe next time. The whole boutique micro-brewery scene still mystifies me, however. Isn’t that all sorta like obsessing over the best brand of beef jerky?

Now that I have the vegan fedora-wearing hipster artisanal brewers of Williamsburg mad at me, back to work. You’ll be glad to learn that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), that paragon of scholarly sobriety, includes both “shandygaff” and “shandy” (defined as a short form of “shandygaff”). The OED defines “shandygaff” as “A drink composed of a mixture of beer and ginger-beer,” but Merriam-Webster broadens that a bit, declaring the stuff “beer diluted with a non-alcoholic drink (as ginger beer).” The OED entry for “shandy” notes that the word can also be used to mean “a mixture of beer and fizzy lemonade.” The consensus of sources I found is that a shandy can be a “ginger shandy” or a “lemon shandy,” but that substituting any other non-alcoholic ingredient, particularly sweetened fruit syrup, is a demonic perversion of the natural order and cause for social ostracism and possibly actual exorcism. (This sort of combative secret code is yet another good reason I avoid bars.)

The earliest citation offered by the OED for “shandy” is from 1888 (“Sparkling hop, shandy, and other new-fangled drinks.”); the first citation for “shandygaff” is from 1853 (“He taught me … to make shandy-gaff and sherry-cobbler.”).

Unfortunately, while we know when “shandygaff” first appeared, no one seems to have even the faintest glimmer as to where it came from, and every dictionary I’ve checked labels it “origin unknown,” so we’re left to strike out on our own. The word “shandy” by itself is a fairly old (1691) English dialect adjective meaning “boisterous” or “empty headed; half-crazy” (OED), which could be a clue, but this “shandy” is also of unknown origin, so that’s no fun. We’re also still left with the original “gaff” bit to explain. There are several “gaffs” in English, the most common being “gaff” in the sense of “a hooked pole.” Another “gaff” means “a loud outcry” or “nonsense” (possibly from the Old English “gaf-spraec,” blasphemous or scandalous speech, possibly related to the French “gaffe,” verbal blunder). There’s also a “gaff” meaning “a fair” or “a place of lower-class entertainment,” as a music hall, etc.

If any of these have any connection to “shandygaff,” I’d put my money on the one meaning “loud nonsense” because, combined with the “boisterous and silly” sense of “shandy,” you’d have a plausible picture of someone who has spent the evening guzzling “shandygaffs.” But this is all pure speculation, and reverse-engineering words this way is often misleading.

2 comments to Shandygaff

  • Word nerd

    So “shandy” means “boisterous” or “half-crazy”? No wonder Laurence Sterne chose it as the surname of the endearingly eccentric Tristram (narrator), Walter (his father), and Toby (his uncle), in “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.” Even if you don’t get all the 18th-century satirical references, this book is still laugh-out-loud funny. Thanks for the information!

  • Paul

    Over here in the british pub a shandy (in my personal experience now always made with lemonade) can be made with lager or bitter (i.e. ale) to taste and so is ordered as a lager shandy or bitter shandy respectively.
    A NSFW formulation in common usage is “hand shandy” referring to what is (famously incorrectly) also known as onanism. I have never managed to work out how that particular expression came into being….

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