or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Spare Change

I promised you something for Saturday on Friday and now it's Sunday and something else has come up, so you can wait, right?

A few weeks ago, I decided I wanted to make something called limoncello. I'm not much of a drinker, but it sounded nice and summery; soak lemon peels in 160-proof alcohol for a few weeks until it's extracted all the colour and flavour, then dilute it with sugar-and-water syrup into something drinkable and serve it straight from the freezer.

Trouble is, you can't get 160-proof alcohol in Canada, at least not this part of Canada. You can't get anything stronger than 98 proof, which is to say 49 per cent alcohol; anything stronger than that is, according to the government, for medicinal purposes only. (This was all told to me by an acquaintance who's the manager of a liquor store, so I believe him.)

The same day, Jim, bless him, went hunting for the stuff and discovered that, while you can't get it, you can buy limoncello already made, so he bought me a bottle. The brand name is L'Alambicco, and here are my thoughts on seeing the word, in rapid succession:

1) "Alambicco." That's a strange word.
2) Wait a minute. That's "alembic"!
3) Only they spelled it wrong.
4) Wait a minute. It must be Arabic, so
we spelled it wrong!

It clearly must be Arabic, from something like "al ambic". I don't know much about Arabic and would hesitate to say that "al embic" is impossible, but the former seemed a lot likelier than the latter.

And I managed to get it more or less right, as it turns out. "Al" is the Arabic definite article, which shows up in a fair passel of English words, such as "alcohol" and "algebra". The actual Arabic term is "al anbiq", which means "still", and that's just what an alembic is in English; a vessel used to purify or concentrate a liquid.

"Anbiq" comes from Greek "ambix", which means "cup", and does not, to the best of my knowledge, have any other relatives in English.

While I'm on the subject of Arabic articles, it's worth noting that the alembic was a piece of equipment used in alchemy, the precursor to chemistry concerned with the transmutation of materials, particularly base metals into gold, and "alchemy" is another of those Arabic borrowings using the definite article "al"; in this case, it's from "al kimiya", "the transformation, the transmutation".


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