In English, like in many other languages, "to drink" often means "to drink alcohol". I dislike this connotation, and I would like to be able to talk about drinking with minimal alcoholic connotations. Which Latin verb for drinking is best suited for this purpose?

There are several verbs for drinking. The most important ones are bibere and potare, but there are also verbs like sorbere, haurire, exsiccare that could mean drinking in some context. These verbs also come with various prefixes. There is also sumere, but that can refer to any kind of consumption, not just drinks.

A more specific version of the question: Which one of bibere and potare has weaker alcoholic connotation? Is there some other verb that would be even better in this respect?

2 Answers 2


A look at Lewis & Short suggests that perhaps bíbó is what you want:

  1. to drink
  2. to arrive at the region of the river
  3. the inhabitants of the country through which the river passes
  4. to be drowned
  5. to founder, to be wrecked
  6. to draw blood, to kill

So the definition doesn't mention alcohol. The notes do suggest, though, that a connotation of alcohol isn't unknown for bíbó, so it can be used intemperately.

Pótó, on the other hand, seems both in its definitions and its notes to include alcohol as an option more strongly:

  1. to drink
  2. to drink from a stream, to dwell by it
  3. to drink up, to suck or draw in, to absorb
  4. Causative, to give to drink, to cause to drink
  5. to drink
  6. to drink, tope, tipple

Isidore, in his Dé Differentiís Verbórum I.74, supports the choice of pótó as more likely to include alcohol with this distinction:

Bibere naturae est, potare luxuriae.

So I think if you want to be abstemious, bíbó is a better bet than pótó.

  • Thanks! My dictionary also hints at bibere, but it's quite vague with connotations. I think I'll go with bibere when I need it.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 18:31
  • 2
    +1 for the Isidore quote! I would probably agree with this 100% if you amended it to say that an alcoholic connotation in bibere "doesn't seem to be as common"
    – brianpck
    Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 18:36
  • I adjusted. Since I can't really speak about frequency/commonness, I reframed it. Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 19:04
  • 3
    That's interesting, since in English the connotations of those two roots seem to have reversed. "Bibulous" refers definitely to drinking alcohol, while "potable" is usually about water. Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 19:25
  • @kundor, that's an interesting observation! And it's nice to see that I'm not the only mathematician here.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 19:30

I'm afraid you might be out of luck, my friend, if you are looking for a word that means "drink" while excluding the possibility of alcohol consumption.

I don't believe there is any way to prevent common parlance from taking innocuous words and using them with derived meanings.

A quick tour of how Plautus uses bibere and potare might serve to illustrate this point. This exercise was ridiculously simple: there were almost no cases of these verbs not applying to alcohol. In some of the below cases, wine is already introduced or in the sentence itself. In others, the mere presence of the verb, in the appropriate context, allows one to infer what is being drunk.

As Phaedromus pours wine in libation on the doorposts, he recites:

Agite bibite, festivae fores;
potate, fite mihi volentes propitiae. (Curc, I.i)

Later, speaking to the alcoholic guardian of the house:

Le. Egon salva sim, quae siti sicca sum? Ph. At iam bibes.
Leaena Diu fit. Phaed. Em tibi anus lepida. Leaena Salve, oculissime homo.
Pal. Age, effunde hoc cito in barathrum, propere
prolue cloacam. Phaed. Tace. Nolo huic male dici. Pal. Faciam igitur male
Le. Venus, de paulo paululum hoc tibi dabo haud lubenter.
nam tibi amantes propitiantes vinum potantes danunt
omnes, mihi haud saepe evenunt tales hereditates. (I.ii)

Curculio, speaking of Greeks in public places:

obstant, obsistunt, incedunt cum suis sententiis,
quos semper videas bibentes esse in thermipolio (II.ii)

Leonida, speaking of his companions:

quando mecum pariter potant, pariter scortari solent (Asinaria, II.ii)

And Artemona, speaking of her husband in the same play:

Ain tu meum virum hic potare (V.ii)

This is also clear for derived adjectives, such as potulentus (see meaning 2 of Lewis and Short) and (ad)potus (L&S), bibax, bibulus, or (my favorite) the nickname given to Tiberius Claudius Nero because of his love of drink: Biberius Caldius Mero.

In short: I do not believe it is possible to exclude the possibility of this interpretation by mere verb choice. Even the most descriptive, innocuous ways of expressing drinking (like sitim satisfacere) are easily appropriated for other purposes.

  • Thanks! I feared this might be the case. All drinking verbs might well be related to alcohol to some extent, but I still believe this extent varies between verbs. Joel suggests that bibere might be the least alcoholic verb, although not exclusive to soft drinks.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 18:33
  • I can definitely agree with that. btw, one of the adjectives I recall reading and really wanted to add at the end of my answer was multibibus, but I can't find it anywhere now....
    – brianpck
    Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 18:38

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