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A calque of a Native American language term, probably Ojibwe ishkodewaaboo (alcohol), from ishkodew- (fire) + -aaboo (liquid”, glossed in older works as “water). A number of other Algonquian and Siouan languages also refer to whiskey with compounds that mean "fire-water" (on which basis noted Algonquianist Leonard Bloomfield even reconstructed a Proto-Algonquian word for it, *eškwete·wa·po·wi, although this could not have existed). The motivation of the name is not entirely clear: It may refer to the “burning” feeling of ingesting high-proof alcohol. Low-quality spirits also often included ingredients such as pepper, tobacco juice, molasses, etc. Alternatively it may refer to the flammability of alcohol.

Non-alcohol-related senses are simply fire +‎ water.


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firewater (countable and uncountable, plural firewaters)

  1. (informal) High-proof alcohol, especially whiskey (especially in the context of its sale to or consumption by Native Americans).
    Synonyms: see Thesaurus:alcoholic beverage
    • 1909, O. Henry [pseudonym; William Sydney Porter], “He Also Serves”, in Options[1]:
      High Jack had been drinking too much rum ever since we landed in Boca. You know how an Indian is—the palefaces fixed his clock when they introduced him to firewater.
    • 2012 November 15, Tom Lamont, “How Mumford & Sons became the biggest band in the world”, in The Guardian[2]:
      Four polite Englishmen in their middle 20s, feigning like firewater drunks in a Eugene O'Neill play: it's exactly the stuff that makes their detractors groan.
  2. High-temperature hydraulic condensate discharged from industrial boilers.
  3. (manufacturing) Water for use in firefighting.
    • 1981, Energy Progress[3], page 205:
      A continuously circulated firewater line supplies a deluge cooling system in each gathering center for fire containment.
    • 2015 March 18, Karen Caffarini, “Cause of line break unknown at BP”, in Post-Tribune[4]:
      A break in a firewater line at BP Whiting Refinery caused water with an oil-like sheen to spread outside the refinery's walls along a section of Indianapolis Boulevard Tuesday night.