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How many times have you heard “carboy?” Did you ever wonder about its derivative?

During harvest, this is a good word to know, if you don’t already know it.

Carboy is a common term in winemaking. I’ve heard it now for about two decades, always wondering about the derivative. It’s usually talked about in wine cellars, and is a vessel used for a small fermentation. This is a clue as to whom else you might know that would use one with any frequency: home winemakers, home brewers, and cider makers.

So, I dug around and found what gave birth to that name, because within the name, there’s no obvious clue. It turns out that it’s from the Persian word “qarabah” (قرابه), and from Arabic qarraba, meaning “big jug.”

All I can deduce from this is that the pronunciation is close enough to “carboy” that that’s what it’s become in English. If you think about the words “car” and “boy,” the name for this vessel makes no real sense; but the “q” in qarabah has a “c” and/or “k” sound, just as Arabic for the “Koran” is “Qur’an.” Now pronounce the Arabic “garabah” and you’ll see how we went from the Arabic word to our Anglo pronunciation.

Usually a carboy is fitted with a rubber stopper and a fermentation lock. This prevents oxygen and bacteria from entering the vessel during the fermentation process, which in a small vessel is really important. I’ve had only one experience at winemaking, taking my Zin grapes and putting them into a vessel, which wasn’t a carboy. Within two days I had the best mold culture going in my neighborhood, and decided that I’m a better marketer than a winemaker. I can write about wines, and winemakers can share their wine… It’s a great union; the player and the cheerleader…

Carboys are 5 gallon jugs, and the glass is super hard, which is more shatter resistant than other glass. This is not only important in winemaking, but also necessary… as carbon dioxide is forming and putting pressure internally on the vessel. Carboys are also used by chemical companies, and no one wants to see any hazardous chemicals escape, if one of these carboys is accidentally dropped, right?

As Paul Harvey always said, “…and now you know the rest of the story.”

6 Responses to “How many times have you heard “carboy?” Did you ever wonder about its derivative?”

  1. Great article – thanks for the info – it’s fun learning something new in the wine world

  2. Jo Diaz says:

    I’m pleased that you’ve taken it this way, Jennifer, just as I intended for it to be.

  3. Nick says:

    Hey, now I know 😉

    Another name for carboys that’s sometimes used, particularly for beer brewing but sometimes for wine, is demijohn, which is another equally bizarre name. merriam-webster says that’s from the French “dame-jeanne” which means Lady Jane. Apparently the Lady Jane must have consumed fermented goodness by the five-gallon-ful?

  4. Jo Diaz says:

    As the saying goes, “She’s no lady, she’s my wife.” Was that from Rodney Dangerfield?

    Maybe Lady Jane was married to a brew master 🙂

  5. Patrick says:

    I wonder if Carboy came to English via Spanish, which has a great many Arabisms in it.

  6. Jo Diaz says:

    Good point, Patrick. It seems very doubtful that wine terms came directly to us from Arab nations. There seems to be a huge gap between when Middle Easter countries had wine grapes and made wine, to when those vines segued to Europe and continued being enjoyed during holy celebrations.

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