We begin our journey to the origin and meaning of the designations ‘rum’ and ‘kill-devil’ by looking at the explanations given so far. What are they, and in what context were the designations initially used?
There were and are numerous names for alcoholic beverages made from sugar cane. In the French Caribbean, for example, these are ‘tafia’, ‘eau de vie de canne’ and ‘clairin’. In the Spanish part of America ‘aguardiente de caña’ and ‘chingurito’. [8-1076] In the British Caribbean and later in the English-speaking part of the Americas, it was ‘kill devil,’ a term adopted in modified form by other nations. [8-1076] [13-26] [15-34] [27-282] ‘Rum’, in the French spelling ‘rhum’, in the Spanish it is ‘ron’, eventually became the most common term for a distillate made from sugar cane. The term is said to have originated in Barbados in the 17th century. [8-1076] [13-26]
There have been numerous explanations for the origin and meaning of the words rum and kill-devil over the past centuries. What are the interpretations and narratives? In which oldest documents were the terms used? Let us first consider kill-devil and then rum.
Barbados learns how to distill
Sometime between 1640 and 1645, it is said, Barbadian planters learned how to make a distillate from sugar cane juice. This was called “kill-devil.”  [8-1076] [14-77] Perhaps they distilled earlier, for Sir Henry Colt reported in 1631, on the occasion of his trip to Barbados, that the Barbadians are »devouerers upp of hott waters and good distellers thereof.« [13-34]  Unfortunately, he is silent about which plant was distilled here. Perhaps it was sugar cane, but perhaps not.
Kill-Devil kills people
Why this distillate was given the name kill-devil, no one is able to say clearly to this day. Is it because the alcohol killed so many people devil-like? At any rate, this was the opinion of Hans Sloane when he wrote in 1707, after spending 15 months in Jamaica: “rum is well-called Kill-Devil, for perhaps no year passes without having killed more than a thousand.” [15-34]
Wayne Curtis further comments that the name Kill-Devil suggests that it is more of a designation given by the lower classes of society. [15-34]
Kill-Devil is the one who kills the devil.
We do not believe that Hans Sloane’s explanation is the true meaning. What was understood by a kill-devil at that time can be found in Christopher Marlowe. He is, along with William Shakespeare, one of the most important writers of the Elizabethan age.  A kill-devil is someone who has killed the devil. In ‘The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus’, published around 1590,   he writes: “ … and I’ll knock them, they were never so knocked since they were devils! Say I should kill one of them, what would folks say? “Do ye see yonder tall fellow … – he has killed the devil.” So I sould be called Kill-devil all the parish over.” [6-188]
This is an extremely important find and of central importance. We will come back to it later. But let us proceed to deal with the further statements and the common etymology.
The drink called kill-devil in Barbados
Richard Ligon writes in the year 1657: “We are seldome drye or thirsty, unlesse we overheat our bodyes with extraordinary labour, or drinking strong drinks; as of our English spirits, which we carry over, of french Brandy, or the drinke of the Iland, which is made of the skimmings of the Coppers, that boyle the Sugar, which they call kill-Divell.” [16-27]
In a following enumeration of local beverages, he describes this drink in more detail: “The seaventh sort of drink is that we make of the skimmings of sugar, which is infinitely strong, but not very pleasant in taste; it is common, and therefore the lesse esteem’d; … the people drink much of it, indeed too much; for it often layes them asleep on the ground, and that is accounted a very unwholesome lodging.” [13-34] [15-31] [16-32] [16-33]
Kill-devil in other languages
The term kill-devil was adopted into French in the variation ‘guildive’. [1-714] [14-76] This term was a mystery to French linguists. Émile Littré, in his ‘Dictionnaire de la langue française’, referring to Jean Baptiste Labat, wrote that guildive was a term used in the American islands for a distillate made from sugar syrups and foam from the first boilers, which was called tafia by the “savages and blacks.” [14-77] [17-1959]
– “GUILDIVE (ghil-di-v’) s. f. Nom qu’on donned dans les îles de l’Amérique, à l’eau-de-vie qu’on tire des gros sirops de sucre et de l’écume des premières chaudières. L’eau-de-vie qu’on tire des cannes est appelée guildive; les sauvages et les nègres l’appellent tafia, LE P. LABAT, Nouv. voy. aux îles fr. t. III, p. 410.” [14-77] [17-1959]
Émile Littré takes this passage by Jean Baptiste Labat as proof that the name guildive originated among the French colonists: a Monsieur Roullin had made some assumptions according to which the syllable guil originates from guiller and is a variation of giler, which denotes the foaming of yeast; the syllable dive is a distorted spelling of diable, which means devil. But Émile Littré also notes that one never knows if there is some special circumstance or proper name behind the name, since historical information is missing. [1-714] [14-77] [17-1959]
– “Etym. Ce passage du P. Labat prouve que guildive est né parmi les colons français, tandis que tafia appartient aux sauvages. M.Roullin a fait quelques conjectures supposant que guil représente soit guiller, fermenter, soit giler, terme populaire, pour jaillir, et dive, forme corrompue de diable. Mais, dans ces cas où tout renseignement historique manque, on ne sait jamais si quelque circonstance spéciale, quelque nom propre ne sont pas cachés sous le mot qu’on veut expliquer.” [17-1959]
Darnell Davis writes that the term gildive was retained in French for a long time, while the English replaced the term kill-devil by rum around 1660. [14-77] It must be noted, however, that even after that the old designation was still chosen. As late as 1681, a letter written on Nevis, an island in the Caribbean, speaks of “kill devill or Rum (this country spiritt)”. [11-91]
However, it is generally agreed that the term kill devil was adopted into French as guildive, [8-1076] [13-26] [15-34] [27-282] into Dutch as kiltem [13-26] or keelduivel [27-282] and into Danish as kieldeevil [13-26] [15-34] or geldyvel. [27-282]
There are however also voices, which maintain, not the French took over guildive from the English kill-devil, but it was the other way around, guildive was the older term.  Also it is considered, guildive could be a combination of the Malay word ‘giler’, which means crazy, and ‘diable’, devil. 
Kill devil as Punch?
But one also reads about Jamaica in a description first published in 1739, and in Barbados it might have been comparable: “The common Drink here is Madera Wine or Rum Punch; the first, mixed with Water, is used by the better Sort; the latter by Servants and the inferior Kind of People. … Rum Punch is not improperly called Kill Devil, for Thousands lose their Lives by its Means”. [29-32]
This is an interesting find that it reveals that in 1739 Charles Leslie, a Barbadian writer on the history of Jamaica, equated kill-devil with rum punch and not rum itself.
Since kill-devil was also, but not only, equated with rum, we should now look at the origins of the term ‘rum’. Basically, rum is said to be a Barbadian word. [1-713] In what context was the term initially used?
There is a report by John Josselyn on September 24, 1639, but he did not publish it until 1674. He writes: “I went aboard the Fellowship, … several of my friends came to bid me farewell, among the rest Captain Thomas Wannerton who drank to me a pint of kill-devil alias Rhum at a draught, at 6 of the clock in the morning we weighed Anchor, and set sail for the Massachusets-bay.” [3-26]
However, this does not mean that the term ‘rum’ was already in use in 1639. The report appeared more than 30 years later, and strictly speaking only proves that kill-devil was also known as rum in 1674. 
A document issued in 1650 for a sugar plantation in Barbados states that it had four large rum cisterns: “four large mastick cisterns for liquor for rum“. This mention is the oldest known to use the term rum. [13-35] [15-26] 
The word ‘rum’ was also recorded in a decree of the North American colony of Connecticut in 1654.  There it is decreed that all Barbadian alcoholic beverages commonly called rum, kill devill, or the like, shall be confiscated upon publication of the ordinance should they be landed, received, or sold by any vessel within the jurisdiction. [10-255]
– “It is also ordred, that whatsoeuer Berbados Liquors, commonly called Rum, Kill Deuill, or the like, shall be landed in any place of this Jurisdictyon, and any part thereof drawn and sould in any vessel, lying in any harber or roade in this Common wealth, after publicatyon of this order, shall be all forfited & confiscated to this Common wealth; & it shall be lawfull for any person in this Jurisdictyon to make seizure thereof, two thirde parts to belong to the publique treasury & the other to the party seazing.” [10-255]
In 1661, orders from the Governor and Council of Jamaica state: “July 3. – That the former orders concerning rum, sugar, and hammocks be still in force, viz., one half to be forfeited to the King, and one half to the informer.” [14-80] [21-42]
Many planters from Barbados had moved to Jamaica at that time to produce sugar, and Darnell Davis thinks they took the word rum there with them. [14-80]
On December 13, 1664, Barbados is concerned with the “Presentments and requests of the grand jury, viz. Jeremy Taylor, for presuming to marry without a license or being in orders; the inhabitants of St. Michael’s for not keeping their bridges in good repair; sundry small houses for selling rum; … ” [21-259]
George Warren schreibt 1667 in seiner Geschichte von Surinam über Rum, aber auch, daß dieser in Nordamerika als kill devil bezeichnet werde. Er sagt: »Rum ist eine Spirituose, die aus dem Saft von Zuckerrohr gewonnen wird, gewöhnlich doppelt so stark wie Brandy, in Neuengland Kill-Divel genannt; … . Melasse ist auch mit Zucker verwandt, denn sie ist das, was von ihm abtropft, während er aushärtet, und wird in England gewöhnlich als Treacle verkauft.« [14-80] [19-17]  
– »Rum is a Spirit extracted from the Juice of Sugar-Canes, commonly, twice as strong as Brandy, call’d Kill-Divel in New England; … . Molasses relates also to Sugar, being that which drops from it, while ’tis Cureing, and is the same commonly sold in England for Treacle.« [14-80] [19-17]  
Older Barbadian legal texts, such as an ordinance of 1655, refer only to “this country’s spirits.” [14-78] [15-26] For the first time on April 29, 1668, today’s term rum was used in it, in an ordinance to prevent the sale of “brandy and rum in tippling houses,” brandy and rum in taverns along the island’s broad paths and streets. [14-78] [15-30]
On June 23, 1675, in Bermuda, “A Law also was passed to prohibit the making of the unwholesome liquor called Rum, under a penalty of £20 for every offence. Also to impose a duty of 4d. per Gallon on all rum imported.” [18-421]
Rumbullion as the origin of the designation ‘rum’.
We have not yet gone into the etymological origin of the name ‘rum’. Many authors derive it from ‘rumbullion’. So what is there to tell about rumbullion?
In the library of Trinity College, Dublin, there is a manuscript entitled ‘A briefe description of the Island of Barbados’. It is undated, but Darnell Davis writes that it contains clues that suggest it must have been written around 1651. It describes various popular drinks on the island, and the author, identified by others as Dutch-born Giles Silvester, brother of Constant Silvester, one of Barbados’ wealthiest and most politically influential sugar planters, states,”the chiefe fudling they make in the Iland is Rumbullion, als Kill-Divill, and this is made of suggar cones distilled a hott hellish and terrible liquor.” [8-1076] [12-39] [13-26] [14-78] 
A news letter from Leyden, dated 23 February 1652 and published in No. 90 of Mercurius Politicus, 19-26 February 1652, reports news from Barbados: “He that brings these tydings to us saith the English Lord WILLOUGHBY there, that governs for the King, or rather for himself, hath strengthened all the ports and avenues there, as Carlisle, Spike Bay, &c. So that part by the Brandywine wherewith we have furnisht him, the spirits of Rombullion, which our men there make him, and other good hopes we give him, becomes very valiant.” [14-78] [14-79] The sentence “So that part by the Brandywine wherewith we have furnisht him, the spirits of Rombullion, which our men there make him, and other good hopes we give him, becomes very valiant” somewhat exceeds our translation skills. If someone is capable of ancient English, a suggestion of what exactly is formulated there will be gladly received. However, the important statement is: They made a spirit called Rumbullion there.
The second volume of General Lefroy’s ‘Memorials of the Bermudas’ publishes a judgment rendered on November 27, 1660. It states: “John Moclaire an Irishman haueing presumptuouslie vndertaken to deliuer a caske of Rumbullian to the Gouernors Negroe woman Sarah Simon to keepe, if not to retaile the same for his aduantage, and thereby haueing occasioned great disorder and drunkenesse amongst the Gouernors Negroes and others, and the same Rumbullian 1 haueing bin discouered by Mr John Bristo, Marshall It is vnanimously Ordered that the same shall be sould and the produce thereof be bestowed vppon the Scochman latelie wounded by Matthew Makennie for his maintenance”  [14-79] [18-139] An associated footnote notes “1 This word cannot be traced. It is not known in Bermuda or the West Indies, as far as the writer has inqired.” [18-139]
James Orchard Halliwell, on the other hand, thinks he has found the origin of the word. He lists the word rumbullion in his 1847 Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words. It is a word from Devonshire and means “a great tumult”: “RUMBULLION. A great tumult. Devon.” [8-1076] [13-26] [14-80] [14-81] [22-698] 
At the time sugar production began in Barbados, settlers from Devonshire arrived there, [8-1076] [13-26] [14-81] and Darnell Davis writes in 1885: “it was no doubt due to some farseeing West-countryman that the cause of so much strife among men was so fitly named.” [14-81]
We wonder, however, why the Devonians in Barbados would have called a distillate made from sugar cane rumbullion. Rum was mentioned as early as 1650, but the etymological derivation of rumbullion was not described until much later, when the origin of the word was being sought. Wouldn’t Englishmen, because they are Devonians, have called such a thing something similar to brandy or water of life, that is, with an established term? For example, with an addendum, as Charles de Rochefort did in 1658 when he spoke of “eau de vie des cannes” to distinguish the drink from a brandy distilled from grapes by the addition of “des cannes”? [13-40] After all, the “foaming up” during fermentation also occurs in other alcoholic beverages known from England, and they were never called rumbullion.
Presumably, so writes James Orchard Halliwell, there was an intermediate step in the shortening of the word ‘rumbullion’ to ‘rum’, for Sir Walter Scott, a great explorer of worn-out terms, described in the thirty-ninth chapter of his book ‘The Pirates’ that Hawkins the boatswain, and Derrick the boatswain’s mate, enjoyed a jug of rumbo, “a can of rumbo”; [1-714] [2-512] [14-81] and also in the book ‘History of New York during the Revolutionary War’ it is mentioned that some revolutionaries drank rumbo, a kind of strong punch made mainly from rum. [14-81] [23-64] Furthermore, he asks whether the old term ‘rumbullion’ is not also reflected in the term “rum-bowling” used by English sailors for their grog. [1-714] [14-81]
However, there are alternative explanations for the origin of the term rumbullion: it could have originated from the combination of ‘rum’ and the French word ‘bouillon’, denoting a hot drink, and it was used to denote a hot, strong punch.  Others derive it from the term ‘rummer’ for a wine glass.  Whether these are meaningful derivations is to be left open.
Other derivations of the term rum
Wayne Curtis notes as an alternative derivation that rum could also be a derivation from the word ‘rumbustion,’ also a colloquial English expression with the same meaning as ‘rumbullion.’ [15-35]
Sanskrit has also been suggested as the origin, on the grounds that there ‘roma’ means as much as water. 
Others link ‘rum’ with ‘rombooze’, also spelled ‘rambooze’, or ‘rumfustian’. Both were popular English drinks in the mid-16th century. Unfortunately, they were not made with rum, but rather with eggs, ale, wine, sugar, and various spices. [15-35]  So this is probably just a coincidence.
John P. Hughes, author of ‘The Science of Language’ suggests ‘rum booze’ became ‘rumboes’ in the plural, which in turn became ‘rumbo’ in the singular, meaning a strong punch. Rum is therefore nothing more than a short form of rumbo. 
In 1824, Samuel Morewood writes: “As for the name given to this spirit, writers are at variance, some attributing its derivation to one thing, and some to another. The word rum seems to have been formerly used in Great Britain to convey the idea of any thing fine, rich, best, or excellent: thus, to express a superior brandy, it was common to say rum Nantz, because the best description of that liquor was distilled at Nantz; and as spirits, extracted from molasses, could not well be ranked under the name of whiskey, brandy, arrack, &c., it was called rum, to denote its excellence or superior quality. This term was probably taken from the last syllable of the Latin word saccharum (sugar), and it is not a little singular that the liquor itself has been always known among the native Americans by the name of rum.” [13-26] [15-34] [15-35] [26-161] [27-282] 
Having considered in this post what the existing explanations are for the origins of the terms kill-devil and rum, we ask ourselves the question: when is rum a rum? Understanding this is important because the term is sometimes used too imprecisely. Therefore, the next post in this series will deal with answering this question.
- https://archive.org/details/transactionsphi03britgoog/page/n724/mode/2up?q=rumbo Anonymus: Transactions of the Philological Society, 1885-6. London, 1886.
- https://archive.org/details/notesqueries47unse/page/512/mode/2up?q=bumbo Anonymus: Notes and Queries. Fourth series, volume seventh. London, 1871.
- https://archive.org/details/accounttwovoyag00Joss/page/26/mode/2up?q=rhum John Josselyn: An account of two voyages to New-England. Wherein you have the setting out of a ship, with the charges; the prices of all necessaries for furnishing a planter and his family at his first coming; a description of the countrey, natives and creatures, with their merchantil and physical use; the government of the countrey as it is now possessed by the English, &c. A large chronological table of the most remarkable passages, from the first discovering of the continent of America, to the year 1673. London, 1674.
- https://books.google.de/books?id=Wgo4DgAAQBAJ&pg=PT23&lpg=PT23&dq=%22kill-devil%22+%22rumbo%22&source=bl&ots=CW8eWzuuuW&sig=ACfU3U1-M_N73pvJuKL7pf8Ur2Is7FQ37w&hl=de&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj9jJGr5LbqAhUK-aQKHX09D0MQ6AEwBXoECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=%22kill-devil%22%20%22rumbo%22&f=false Ian Williams: Rum. A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776. eISBN 978-0-786-73574-7. 2005.
- https://blog.oup.com/2010/10/rum/ The Rum History of the Word “Rum”. By Anatoly Liberman, 6. October 2010.
- https://archive.org/details/cmarlowe00marliala/page/188/mode/2up?q=kill-devil Christopher Marlowe: The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. London, 1887.
- https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Die_tragische_Historie_vom_Doktor_Faustus Die tragische Historie vom Doktor Faustus.
- https://books.google.de/books?id=ANm5BgAAQBAJ&pg=PA1163&lpg=PA1163&dq=what+did+barbadian+slaves+drink&source=bl&ots=–BgFcp98B&sig=ACfU3U3b8qNTQeK8fVHSyKfR7ti-bOHhtA&hl=de&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj8zqHXm7jqAhXN2KQKHWkACBgQ6AEwDXoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=what%20did%20barbadian%20slaves%20drink&f=false Scott C. Martin (Hrsg.): The SAGE Encyclopedia of Alcohol: Social, Cultural and Historical Perspectives. SAGE Publications, 2014.
- https://public.oed.com/blog/word-stories-rum/ Rum.
- https://archive.org/details/publicrecordsofc03conn?q=%22kill+deuill%22 J. Hammond Trumbull (Hrsg.): The public records of the colony of Connecticut, prior to the union with New Haven colony, may 1665; transcribet and published, (in accordance with a resolution of the general assembly,) under the supervision of the secretary of state, with occasional notes, and an appendix; Hartford, 1850.
- https://archive.org/details/caribbeanabeingmv2oliv?q=%22kill+devill%22 Vere Langford Oliver (Hrsg.): Caribbeana being Miscellaneous Papers relating to the History, Genealogy, Topography, and Antiquities of the British West Indies. Volume 2. London, 1912.
- https://archive.org/details/s8notesqueries07londuoft?q=%22kill+devill%22 Anonymus: Notes and Queries: A Medium of Intercommunication for literary men, general readers, etc. Eigth series, volume seventh. London, 1895.
- https://archive.org/details/volatilespiritsh00smit/page/n35/mode/2up?q=%22Negroes+are+in+general+much+addicted+to+drunkenness%22 und https://ufdcimages.uflib.ufl.edu/AA/00/02/65/65/00001/volatilespiritsh00smit.pdf Frederick H. Smith: Volatile Spirits: The historical archaeology of alcohol and drinking in the Caribbean. A dissertation presented to the graduate school of the university of Florida in partial fulfillment of requirements for the degree of doctor of philosophy. University of Florida, 2001.
- https://archive.org/details/timehrijournalr09guiagoog/page/n93/mode/2up?q=%22Brandy+and+Rum+in+Tippling+houses%22 N. Darnell Davis: The Etymology of the word Rum. In: Timehri being the journal of the Royal agricultural and commercial society of British Guiana. Volume 4. Demerara, 1885.
- Wayne Curtis: And a Bottle of Rum. ISBN 978-0-307-33862-4. New York, 2007.
- https://archive.org/details/trueexacthistory00ligo Richard Ligon: A trve & exact history of the island of Barbados. London, 1657.
- https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044116054784&view=1up&seq=1025&q1=guildive É. Littré: Dictionnaire de la langue française. Tome deuxième, D-H. London, 1878.
- https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo1.ark:/13960/t4pk0zf87&view=1up&seq=187&q1=simon J. H. Lefroy: Memorials of the discovery and early settlement of the Bermudas or Somers Islands 1511-1687 compiled from the colonial records and other original sources. Vol. 2, 1650-1687. London, 1879.
- https://archive.org/details/animpartialdesc00warrgoog/page/n26/mode/2up?q=rum George Warren: An impartial description of Surinam upon the continent of Guiana in America. With a History of several strange Beasts, Birds, Fishes, Serpents, Insects, and Customs of that Colony, &c. London, 1667.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treacle Treacle.
- https://archive.org/details/calendarofstatep166168grea/page/42/mode/2up?q=rum W. Noel Sainsbury (Hrsg.): Calendar of state papers, colonial series, America and West Indies, 1661-1668. London, 1880.
- https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.hwslpz&view=1up&seq=228&q1=rumbullion James Orchard Halliwell: A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs, and Ancient Customs , from the Fourteenth Century. Vol. 2. London, 1847.
- https://archive.org/details/historyofnewyork02jone/page/n12/mode/2up?q=rumbo Thomas Jones: History of New York during the revolutionary war, and of the leading events in the other colonies at that period. Vol. 1. New York, 1879.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Marlowe Christopher Marlowe.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_Faustus_(play) Doctor Faustus (play).
- https://archive.org/details/anessayoninvent00moregoog/page/n177/mode/2up?q=molasses Samuel Morewood: An essay on the inventions and customs of both ancients and moderns in the use of inebriating liquors. Interspersed with interesting anecdotes, illustrative of the manners and habits of the principal nations of the world. With an historical view of the extent and practices of distillation, both as it relates to commerce and as a source of national income: comprising much curious information respecting the application and properties of several parts of the vegetable kingdom. London, 1824.
- https://archive.org/details/inventionscustom00morerich/page/282/mode/2up?q=denote Samuel Morewood: A philosophical and statistical history of the inventions and customs of ancient and modern nations in the manufacture and use of inebriating liquors; with the present practice of distillation in all its varieties: together with an extensive illustration of the consumption and effects of opium, and other stimulants used in the East, as substitutes for wine and spirits. Dublin, 1838.
- https://www.amazon.de/-/en/Tristan-Stephenson/dp/1849758239#reader_B07FG7QBTH Vorschau von Tristan Stephenson: The Curious Bartender’s Rum Revolution. ISBN 978-1-84975-823-9. 2017. Therein the chapter: Kill Devil.
- https://books.google.de/books?id=e2ZZAAAAcAAJ&printsec=frontcover&hl=de#v=onepage&q=thousands&f=false Charles Leslie: A new and exact account of Jamaica, wherein the antient and present state of that colony, its importance to Great Britain, laws, trade, manners and religion, together with the most remarkable and curious animals, plants, trees, &c. are described: With a particular account of the sacrifices libations &c. at this day in use among the negroes. The third edition. To which is added, an appendix, containing an account of admiral Vernon’s success at Porto Bello and Chagre. Edinburgh, 1740.