What were English East India Company merchants drinking in Japan?

A note on terminology, and an addendum (and correction) to my PhD thesis

1. How did I miss that?

Doing research, it’s easy to find yourself going down rabbit holes, chasing answers that seem to always elude your grasp. You do your best, but still have to resign yourself to unsatisfactory results.

In my case, my PhD thesis consisted of lexical studies – mostly of words borrowed from various languages into English, as found in the letters of English East India Company merchants residing in Japan and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, in the early 1600s. For two of the words – out of about 120 – I had to concede defeat in pinpointing their exact sources. I knew what they meant, as that was very clear from the context: it was just their etymology which I was unable to pinpoint.

Fast-forward about 16 months from finishing the corrections to my PhD. I was revisiting my list of borrowed words for a talk (that I gave to the Helsinki Society for Historical Lexicography), when I stumbled upon a source which immediately gave me the etymology to one of the two unclear terms, and pointed me in the right direction to solve the other one.

At times like this, you have to ask yourself: is it pure chance that I found this source now, or was I sloppy when I conducted the original survey? I suppose the answer lies somewhere in between – after all, you are never able to find or see every relevant source; but at the same time, in searching for sources, the keywords you use can make all the difference between finding answers and finding none.

2. First word: “xxij barsos singe

The material I wrote my PhD on are letters written by English EIC merchants stationed in Japan, 1613–1623 (Farrington 1991). In their letters to each other, the English merchants frequently discuss food and drink. In one stretch of letters from 1620, they write about ordering “singe”. From the context, this appears to be a local alcoholic beverage, at a guess some type of sake or rice wine: it is ordered from “Ichemon Dono our wyne man”.

Now, “singe” is not immediately etymologically transparent. Phonologically, if read as something like [∫ɪnʤ], it could be Japanese (or Chinese) – but I could not find corresponding words in PDJ dictionaries. An alternative that I suggested in my thesis is that the writer is punning on French vin du singe, “wine of ape”, referring to a state or type of inebriation. (The English merchants did like their puns and nicknames, so this is not as unlikely as it may sound).

In the end, however, I could find nothing corroborating either interpretation.

Until, that is, 16 months after submitting my PhD to the printer, when I stumbled upon (i.e. located via googling), an article titled the ‘Introduction of Japanese sake by foreign visitors’ (Yoshida 1993). The writer had done something similar to what I was doing in the talk I was preparing, and looked at Japanese words recorded in the Vocabvlario da Lingoa de Iapam, a Japanese-Portuguese dictionary published in Japan by the Jesuits in 1603. He had searched through the dictionary for words relating to sake (and alcohol more generally), and in the article gives them in a list grouped thematically. Each line/entry has a headword occurring in the Vocabulario, and then a definition. The list starts with:

In English:

A. Types of sake
(1) shinju (xinxu, xinju)   new/fresh sake (ataraxij saqe).
(2) koshu (coxu)   old sake (furui saqe).

(The words in parentheses are from the Vocabulario: the dictionary uses <x> for /sh/, <j> for /j/ (word-final <j> after <i> is a spelling convention: there, <j> stands for /i/), and word-medial <q> and word-initial <c> for /k/).

The very first word in Yoshida’s list is ‘new sake’, which, as the Vocabulario records, has two pronunciations: shinshu and shinju.

Having thus found a contemporary European instance of the English merchants’ “singe”, together with its identification in Japanese, there is, I think, no need to hesitate in identifying “singe” as 新酒 shinju ‘new sake’.

3. Second word: “xxij barsos of singe”

The other word I couldn’t find the root of occurs in the same letters as “singe”: where “singe” is the liquid, “barsos” are the containers. It’s quite clear from the context that a “barso” is a small barrel – from other sources it’s possible to determine that a “barso” holds c.10 litres. But the etymology evaded me: I couldn’t find “barso” in any form in Present-Day Portuguese or Spanish dictionaries, and despite the apparent connection to other words meaning ‘cask’ such as barrel, but also barrillo, barillejo, and barrico, the lack of evidence made me put my hands up.

Once again, Yoshida (1993: 59) comes to the rescue. On the same page as discussed above, his list continues to section B, 酒屋, 酒造道具, 製造工程など ‘sake shop/brewery, sake production tools, manufacturing process etc’. And number 9 in this list is as follows:

In English:

(9) saka-oke (saca uoqe)   a container for sake, like an oke [barrel] or a taru [cask] (barça).

(The <u> in “saka uoqe” reflects historical pronunciation, a /u/ or /w/ before /o/).

To repeat what I said above, the words in parentheses are from the Vocabulario – in other words, the dictionary contains the very word I was looking for. But not as a headword, since it’s a Japanese-Portuguese dictionary. So I turned to its definition of “saca uoqe” – as well as for just “uoqe”, 桶 oke, and also 樽 taru:

The definition of “saca uoqe” does indeed include the word barça! The definition translates as ‘A type of vessel, like a tina or barça for wine’. Meanwhile, “Voqe” is defined as Balde, and Taru is defined as a ‘Piparote, or barça‘.

Google translate gives ‘tub’ for tina, ‘bucket’ for balde, but doesn’t help with piparote. Happily, there are plenty of old dictionaries of Portuguese on Google Books, and some of them purposely contain obsolete and trade terms. One from 1871 (de Lacerda) has the following definitions:


PIPOTE, s. dimin. from Pipa, a small cask or vessel.

TINA, s. f. a tub, a wooden vessel. — de vinho, a vat for wine.

In fine, then: it seems quite evident that barça was a common Portuguese word for a (small) barrel or a cask.

(There seems to be overlap in the terms for making and keeping alcohol, and for transporting it. That is to say, I wouldn’t immediately consider buckets, tubs and vats as vessels for carrying liquids over longer distances in, but on the other hand, I suppose it can be simply a matter of whether the vessel has a lid or not).

4. A third word, to illustrate the limitations of extant sources: “a cuple barrels skarbeare”

Among all the other words relating to drinking that the English merchants used which can be identified, there is one that appears to have avoided capture by lexicographers (to my knowledge, anyway). In this case, the beverage was brewed by the merchants themselves: “skarbeare” – that is, scar beer.

Although unrecorded by the OED, this appears to be another term for small beer, or beer low in alcohol (as opposed to strong beer). Scar in scar beer may be an abbreviated variant of scarce, for one merchant writes that

“I … have fownd out the use of making scarce ale, but I want good mault”. [emphasis added]

Thus, the scar in scar beer probably means ‘small’ – or, rather, ‘weak; thin’.

Is the word dialectal? The writer using the term scar beer in the EIC letters was from Staffordshire, and the (West) Midlands dialect is evident in his use of language (spelling and lexical choice). Similarly, “scarce ale” occurs in a letter by another merchant from the West Country, although from further south, Wiltshire. A search of the English Dialect Dictionary (EDD) finds scar(r), meaning “small quantity; a morsel; a particle”, recorded in Shetland and the Orkneys (EDD, s.v.). The Orkneys are far from the West Country, but neither is close to London (which in practice drove the development of standard English), and old terms tend to live on in the periphery.

But perhaps the term is common: scar beer does crop up in contemporary literature. Henry Peacham (born in Hertfordshire) uses it in his The worth of a peny (1641):

Comparing scar beer to “a kinde of pitifull small Beere, too bad to be drunk” suggests the term has a negative connotation (I take it that “brewed with broom” means that the beer is flavoured with broom, rather than hops). This negative connotation can be found in an earlier text, a play by Henry Glapthorne (from Cambridgeshire), “Albertus Wallenstein” (printed 1639):

Further surveys (more than quick googling) would undoubtedly find more instances, but I think this case is quite straightforward. We can conclude that scar beer is more or less the same as, if not indeed a synonym for, small beer.

5. Don’t stop now! What else were they drinking?

This blog post is already long enough, but I’ll close with two more tidbits about the drinking habits of the EIC merchants in Japan.

The Englishmen brewed their own (small) beer, as seen above. And they also made cider – which could at times be undrinkable:

“I would I had a little of your pery …, I mean of the first bruinge, w’ch I suppose is not yet sower. I have a littell sider heare, but it is so sharp as viniger and cuts my throat in drincking.”

Finally, the degree to which the EIC merchants enjoyed drinking is reflected in how much they wrote about various drinks in their letters. One proxy for this is the index in the source edition I have used (Farrington 1991). Here is its list of pages on which wine is mentioned:

I should add that this is not an exhaustive list, for wine is mentioned in the documents not only as “wine”, but also with many other terms, such as “singe” as seen above – and also words like “morofack” (morohaku 諸白, a fine sake).


EDD = The English Dialect Dictionary. 1896–1905. 6 vols. Ed. by Joseph Wright. London: Henry Frowde. Available on the Internet Archive. A digitized version (EDD Online) is available at eddonline-proj.uibk.ac.at.

Farrington, Anthony (ed.). 1991. The English Factory in Japan 1613–1623. London: British Library.

Glapthorne, Henry. 1639. “Albertus Wallenstein”. In: The Old English Drama: A Selection of Plays from the Old English Dramatists, Vol. 2 (London, 1825). Google Books. Harvard College Library. books.google.com/books?id=gGX2sAcXnrUC.

de Lacerda, José. 1871. A New Dictionary of the Portuguese and English Languages: Containing All the Vocables in Common Use, with a Selection of Terms Obsolescent Or Obsolete Connected with Polite Literature Technical Terms, Or Such as are in General Use in the Arts, Manufactures, and Sciences, in Naval and Military Language, in Law, Trade, and Commerce, &c., &c., &c. Lisbon. Google Books. University of California Library. books.google.com/books?id=NrNLAQAAMAAJ.

OED = Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press. Subscription service. www.oed.com.

Peacham, Henry. 1641. The worth of a peny, or, A caution to keep money with the causes of the scarcity and misery of the want hereof in these hard and mercilesse times : as also how to save it in our diet, apparell, recreations, &c.: and also what honest courses men in want may take to live. London. EEBO. Huntington Library.

Vocabvlario da Lingoa de Iapam com adeclaração em Portugues, feito por algvns padres, e irmaõs da Companhia de Iesv / Nippo Jisho: Pari-bon 日葡辞書: パリ本 [‘A vocabulary of the Japanese language, with Portuguese pronunciation, made by certain priests and brothers of the Company of Jesus / Japanese-Portuguese Dictionary: The Paris Copy’]. 1603. Nagasaki. Facsimile repr. with discussion by Harumichi Ishizuka 晴通石塚. 1976. Tokyo. Bensei 勉誠社. Google Books. Ohio State University Library. books.google.com/books?id=TFJAAQAAMAAJ.

Yoshida, Hajime 吉田元. 1993. 外国人による日本酒の紹介(I) ‘Introduction of Japanese sake by foreign visitors (1)’. 日本醸造協会誌 Journal of the Brewing Society of Japan 88(1): 56–61.

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