Friday, August 3, 2012

Going Down to the Tavern...

My recent trip to Greece reminded me how the Latin word taberna has evolved in interesting ways. Originally the word simply meant shop or store. You would go to a taberna to buy a toga, a different taberna might specialize in jewelry, another in spices, and so on. If you go to a Middle Eastern Sooq today you can get a good idea of what a taberna was. To get you into the place, the owner will offer you a cup of tea or coffee. And in ancient Rome, they would offer you a cup of wine. 

Now, in practice, an ancient Roman taberna was probably always in the drink business alongside selling togas, etc. It was basically the same principle whereby American stores and restaurants know that letting the public use your bathroom for free is basically good business. The rest of the world, including Western Europe, hasn't completely caught up with us on this point yet. While on vacation in Europe, I know that buying a beer is frequently the cost for using a bathroom. And this can turn into a negative feedback loop pretty fast. 

Anyway, back to the Roman taberna. It was a store, but it was also a place to buy a glass of wine. And there were certainly tabernae that specialized in wine as well. And if you were at one such place, they also didn't want you leaving if you suddenly found yourself hungry. They were certainly in the snack business as well.

And that brings us to how the Latin word taberna would evolve. In Greece, a taverna is a restaurant. Now, in practice, there is no taverna in Greece where you can not also get a beer or a glass of wine. In the English tradition, both Britain and America, a tavern is primarily a place where you go to get a drink. But in practice, there is no tavern where you can not also get a bite to eat.

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In Madison, Wisconsin, where I grew up, my father would frequently declare that he was "going down to the Ohio Tavern" for a drink. (It was just three blocks away.) I'm delighted to learn that the place is still in business. Like so many other places in Wisconsin, there are even claims that it's haunted.

Cheers, Dad. I sure miss you.