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What Is Adam's Ale?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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Adam’s ale is a collocation meaning water. The term is derived from the Bible and Jewish tradition regarding the Garden of Eden. In this tradition, Adam was only allowed to drink from the four rivers of Eden and could not drink anything else. God’s command led to the use of Adam’s ale as a joke against those who would only drink water. It also led to the temperance and prohibition movements across the English-speaking world.

Water is a simple element that exists on Earth in solid, liquid and gaseous form. It is made from one oxygen and two hydrogen molecules. It is a seemingly clear liquid that forms a large portion of the world and of most organisms within it. Water is linked to purification and simplicity. Many religions from Christianity to Wicca and Islam to Shinto incorporate water into purification rituals.

Ale is derived from malted barley and is a type of beer. Usually made without using hops, ales tend to be sweet alcoholic beverages. The term ale comes from the Old English word ‘ealu’ and has a common origin across much of non-Roman Central and Eastern Europe. Beer and ale were synonymous until beers came to represent ales with hops.

Biblical tradition holds that the first man created by the Judeo-Christian God was called Adam. Etymologically, Adam relates to old Near East words meaning ‘earth.’ The book of Genesis describes how Adam and Eve, plus Lilith, were allowed to live in the Garden of Eden until their temptation and subsequent fall.

The Garden of Eden appears to have been located at the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Northern Iraq around the area of modern-day Armenia and Kurdistan. Eden may be a metaphor for simpler times. It represents a life before farming when man got his bounty from God without toil. If so, then Adam’s ale represents a time before alcohol, when man drank only water.

Stories about Adam’s ale came to inspire the temperance movement in the early 19th century. It began in 1789 with Dr. Benjamin Rush’s findings on the effects of alcohol consumption on the human body. This led to the first Temperance Association in Connecticut, and the movement spread to include Britain, New Zealand and Australia. The movement never managed responsible drinking or prohibition, except for short periods of time, and ultimately collapsed in the early 20th century. Adam’s ale is not used as much in the modern era as in the past; this may be due to changes in slang and language or the secularization of society in many English-speaking countries.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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