This week’s word is ullage thanks to the entertaining “Movies & Booze” radio slot on Newstalk on Friday afternoons. I’m often driving on a Friday afternoon and the movie reviews combined with chat about wines and beers are always knowledgeable and fun. Last Friday the wine expert used the word ullage, much to the amusement of his co-hosts, and it seemed like a perfect choice for some wordfoolery here.
The word ullage describes the empty part of a container, or the loss of liquid by evaporation or leakage. Ullage is the empty gap in a wine bottle which is there to allow for expansion in the wine due to temperature variations.
That definition reminded me of a distillery tour I took at Bushmills, many years ago, when the guide explained that the evaporation of whiskey during the long maturation in casks was called the angel’s share. It conjured images of tipsy angels fluttering above the casks having a wee dram and causing ullage in the casks.
Ullage’s route to English has a surprising origin in the Latin word for eye – oculus (which has links to ocular and binoculars as you might expect). What has an eye to do with the angel’s share?
The next step is ouiller (or euillier) which was the Old French verb meaning to fill up. It translated literally as to “fill to the eye”. It is likely that the bunghole of the barrel was called the eye. From ouiller to uillage in Anglo Norman French is an easy hop and by the late 1400s the word ullage was used in Late Middle English, yet another of those words imported to England by the Normans, and their wine merchants.
The next time you open a bottle, or cask, of booze you can ponder the angel’s share and the barrel’s eye.
Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,