The Source of Water

Did you know vodka in Russian means “little water”?

The origins of the modern words for “water” in the western world are ancient. There are two main roots for the names we have water: ap and wed. Ap was used when speaking of water as a “living force” in action, and wed when speaking of water as an inanimate object.

Both roots originate several thousand years ago in something called Proto-Indo European (PIE), believed to be spoken in what’s now Eastern Europe and Western Asia. PIE is the ancestor of most widely-spoken languages in the past several millennia like Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Persian, English, Spanish–really, most languages you know of today that are not of East Asian, Semitic, and African origin.

Those two roots–ap and wed–form the two key root variations of the words you probably know for “water”. Proto-Indo European speakers supposedly called it akwa or wodor, depending on the context. In Sanskrit, water was apah. 3000 years ago, the Hittites called it watar. A thousand years later, speakers of proto-Germanic (the ancestor of English, Germanic, and Scandinavian languages) would say akwo or watar. Around the same time, Latin speakers decided to stick with aqua, and English speakers seemed to settle on variations of water, dropping akwo. Old English speakers said w√¶ter.

That’s right: The Spanish word “aqua” and the English word “water” have changed little in several thousand years. The Greeks originally called it hudor, the source of the prefixes “hydro” and “hydra” (hudra); the Cherokee say ama. An ancient Sanskrit speaker would understand the modern Romanian word for water: apa.

And Russian speaker call it voda. So, voda+ka = vodka, or “little water”, making a vodka tonic a “little water with water”. Now you know.