Several weeks ago, we spent a pleasant evening eating, drinking and bowling with Spencer and Sarah. When we returned, I offered a nightcap, “a wee dram of scotch”, and etymological curiosity awakened.
Could the ancient small coin of the near east, the drachma, be in some wise related to the (to me) indeterminate liquid quantity of a dram?
The answer is yes, and has its roots in the ancient measurement system we call “English”, but which is very much older than the nation of England. English measure is based on the principle of dual divisibility: each base unit is divisible by even numbers or odds, generally halves and thirds. These measures can be grouped to reflect proportional relationships seen frequently in nature, such as base-eight proportions or base-twelve proportions.
These systems of measurement and proportion were first enunciated in the Mediterreanean basin, probably in response to Egyptian principles of proportion and measure, and were strongly codified though the influence of classical Greek writings, notably Plato and Aristotle, each of who expounds upon principles of “true measure” and harmony in music and by extention to the physical world.
But what about that little glass of scotch?
Turning to The American Heritage Dictonary of the English Language:
1. abbr. dr. a. A unit of weight in the U.S. Customary System equal to 1/16 of an ounce or 27.34 grains (1.77 grams). b. A unit of apothecary weight equal to 1/8 of an ounce or 60 grains (3.89 grams). 2a. A small draft: took a dram of brandy. b. A small amount; a bit: not a dram of compassion.
Middle English dragme, a drachma, a unit of weight, from Old French, from Late Latin dragma, from Latin drachma. See drachma.
Aha! “1/8 ounce”; and see DRACHMA! But how big is a shot? Well, a shot is 2 fluid ounces. So a dram is one-sixteenth of a shot. Not a lot. (In usage, it’s clear, it’s really commonly employed to mean about 2 fluid ounces, but’s etymology we’re after here, not usage).
Here’s Vitruvius on the matter (the oddball words are, I believe, an effort to render greek in the browser):
“6. The mathematicians, on the other hand, contend for the perfection of the number six, because, according to their reasoning, its divisors equal its number: for a sixth part is one, a third two, a half three, two-thirds four, which they call divmoiroV; the fifth in order, which they call pentavmoiroV, five, and then the perfect number six. When it advances beyond that, a sixth being added, which is called e[fektoV, we have the number seven. Eight are formed by adding a third, called triens, and by the Greeks, ejpivtritoV. Nine are formed by the addition of a half, and thence called sesquilateral; by the Greeks hJmiovlioV; if we add the two aliquot parts of it, which form ten, it is called bes alterus, or in Greek ejpidivmoiroV. The number eleven, being compounded of the original number, and the fifth in order is called ejpipentavmoiroV. The number twelve, being the sum of the two simple numbers, is called diplasivwn.
7. Moreover, as the foot is the sixth part of a man’s height, they contend, that this number, namely six, the number of feet in height, is perfect: the cubit, also, being six palms, consequently consists of twenty-four digits. Hence the states of Greece appear to have divided the drachma, like the cubit, that is into six parts, which were small equal sized pieces of brass, similar to the asses, which they called oboli; and, in imitation of the twenty-four digits, they divided the obolus into four parts, which some call dichalca, others trichalca.”
Soo… drachmas were divisible by six, although they also derived this from a base-twelve system.
And that’s as far as I’ll take this. I was looking to see if there was a direct connection from the divisions of the drachma to the Spanish coin, the famous “piece-of-eight” from which we get the term “bit”, as in “two-bit word scholar”, but although the usage and practice may be similar, it seems they are separated by a great distance in time and therefore may not share a heritage as do dram and drachma.