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“Drink like an Egyptian”???

It’s now Day Four of the 2017 Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy, and we’re headed for the final stretch.

Thirty top-flight students — engaged and engaging, questioning and searching — have graced the classroom of The Legal Genealogist and co-coordinator extraordinaire Richard G. “Rick” Sayre this week — and it’s been a total blast.

But it’s also intensively time-consuming… and that doesn’t leave much room for blog posts.

But heaven forfend anyone should have withdrawal so…

The term of the day.


Picked for absolutely no better reason than that it’s the very last defined word on the very last page of the very first edition of Black’s Law Dictionary.

Where it’s defined this way: “A liquor or beverage made of wheat or barley.”1


zythumTo shed a little more light on the matter, I went looking online for definitions of zythum, and the few regular dictionaries that define it all say the same thing: it’s a beer of ancient times, of ancient Egypt.2


Apparently this isn’t a word folks look up on an every-day-every-minute basis. The dictionary website goes on to ask: “What made you want to look up zythum? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).”3 And the only interesting answer is that it was the name of a band.

There is an 1845 political dictionary online that includes it as part of the definition of ale, mentioning that Pliny the Elder spoke of this beer of the ancient Egyptians.4


Just what in the world is that doing in a law dictionary?

Here’s the simple answer.

I have absolutely no idea.

When we’re talking about a beer of ancient Egypt, then what a lawyer of the late 19th century was thinking when he wrote it — well, I have no clue.

It’s not at all the only word dealing with alcoholic beverages that’s in the law dictionary, mind you. You can go ahead and look up beer,5 or brewer6 or delirium tremens7 or dipsomania8 or dram-shop.9

It goes on through the alphabet, through inebriate10 and octrol11 and publican12 and saloon-keeper13 and tavern.14

All the way through to zythum.

But what you won’t find, at least not obviously, is any reason why the word was included in a law dictionary. It’s not referenced in any statute book I could find, or any acts of a state or federal legislature, or any decision of a state or federal court.

But hey… it’s a fun word, isn’t it?

And who knows? Maybe somewhere at some time some ancestor of yours or mine sauntered into that bar, bellied up to the rail and ordered a zythum.

Suuuuuure he did.

And you can just hear the bartender, can’t you?



  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1253, “zythum.”
  2. See Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 25 Jan 2017), “zythum.”
  3. Ibid.
  4. Political Dictionary: Forming a Work of Universal Reference (London, England : Charles Knight & Co., 1845), 92; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 25 Jan 2017).
  5. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 125, “beer.”
  6. Ibid., 153, “brewer.”
  7. Ibid., 350, “delirium tremens.”
  8. Ibid., 369, “dipsomania.”
  9. Ibid., 395, “dram-shop.”
  10. Ibid., 618, “inebriate.”
  11. Ibid., 843, “octrol.”
  12. Ibid., 965, “publican.”
  13. Ibid., 1060, “saloon-keeper.”
  14. Ibid., 1152, “tavern.”
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