I have been known to take a tipple or two. A quick quaff. A wee dram. A shot of hooch, a bit of booze, a tiny toddy, a sip of the sauce. I have a taste for the hard stuff; if there’s a problem, I can offer a solution… of 40% ethanol. I take not just firewater, of course, and similar spirits (a mug of moonshine, perhaps? but skip the rotgut); much as I like the malt, I will take that malt-and-hops beverage too. Who doesn’t like the pint? Or fizzy by the flute or bumper, or other sorts of Bacchus’s favourite beverage – set out the stemware and replenish it with juice of the grape. There are just so many ways to drink.
How fortunate that there are so many synonyms for drink. Or perhaps how unfortunate.
Something so loved yet so louche is bound to accumulate synonyms and euphemisms. We want to talk about it without talking about it; we want to be coy. A while back I said offhandedly that there must be more than 365 synonyms for drunk, and I have long since validated that claim (see? include the comments).
Which does not mean we have to use them all incessantly. We can talk about alcoholic beverages without using a different word for them every time. There is a fear in some circles of using the same significant word twice in close proximity (within a paragraph or two, say), and it seems so… writerly… to toss in variants. Some of these words seem to be in the language just so people who are afraid of repetition have another word (see temblor).
Tipple shows up when a writer wants a fresh word for ‘drink’, noun or verb. It has a bit of a different tone to it, but it has some cross-currents. It can sound as prim as a steeple, or as bare as a nipple; it may make you a bit tipsy (just a sample) or it may make you topple. It shows up more in certain kinds of context: favourite tipple, tipple of choice; a tiplpe or two, the odd tipple, the occasional tipple; a local tipple, a summertime tipple, a sunset tipple. If you search newspapers, you will probably note a preponderance of noun usages.
Which is entertaining. Because it’s a kind of backwash. In real life we could say the tipple makes the tippler, because until you’ve tippled you aren’t a tippler and you require tipple to tipple, but in the history of this word the noun shows up last – in the later 1500s – and the verb shows up a bit sooner – circa 1500 – but the word tippler is the earliest of the three, dating as far back as the late 1300s.
But… that –le suffix… and the agentive –er that’s obviously tacked onto it… how can you go backwards through that? Well, to be fair, the sense of tippler meaning ‘drinker’ has been dated back only to 1580. The earlier instances all refer to a retailer of ales and other intoxicating liquors. A tippler was first a person who sold alcoholic beverages. And tipple meaning ‘sell liquor’ is the sense that showed up in 1500; the sense meaning ‘drink’ appeared around 1560. So we may have had a backformation from tippler in one sense, and then a forward formation in the other. If there is a tippler, then there must be tippling; but tipple sounds like a verb of action (get to tip a bit now and again, for instance), so…
…so where does tippler come from? It’s not completely clear, but it’s not formed from tip. It can’t be, unless tip was around in common use for quite a while before anyone got around to writing it down. More likely is that tippler comes from a Norse dialect word relating to drinking little bits. But we’re not really sure. It’s all rather hazy.
And now we have this word in our collection. It’s not the standard word; it’s become a quaint curio, a cute toy, a fun little thing to trot out for guests or just when we want to feel a bit more… special. The English lexicon is like a liquor cabinet, and a very well stocked one at that. And every now and then you just want to bring out that odd little bottle of liqueur. It serves its intoxicating turn (with the extra kick for the synonym addict), and it has a different flavour too, and on top of all that it marks you out as a sophisticated collector and tippler.