There are some words in our American English language that are so regularly used, we no longer question them. They just are. A ‘shot’ is one of these, having many supposed histories, most of them being pretty amazing. There was a lot of reading on this one, and figuring out the correct version might ultimately be impossible, but that’s the fun! Here are three possible origins I found to be the most colorful and with a plausible story to them. Enjoy!
The first history states that in a relatively dry town in Indiana, an entrepreneur wanted to open a tavern. Many of the town residents were part of the temperance movement and weren’t too favorable to the idea of public drinking in their midst. So, when the initial shipment showed up by train, a single barrel of whiskey sitting on an open freight car, one of the temperance folks ‘shot’ a hole in it, sabotaging the opening of the bar before it could take a foothold. Since then, and after the temperance movement went by the wayside, when anyone wanted whiskey in that town, they would say they wanted a ‘shot’ of it.
Another story, going back several centuries, says an Old English word for payment in the 1400s, was the word ‘sceotan’ (see’-otan). If someone wanted their money for labor, goods, or any other service, they would say, “Give me my sceotan.” One fellow, who did some work for a tavern back then, apparently asked for his payment in liquor. The quote goes, “I’ll take a sceotan in a glass!” Sounds like a win-win! After several hundred years, ‘sceotan’ went through the evolution that happens in any language and became ‘shot.’
The final story I found, and my favorite, is that in the old west, folks didn’t always have cash. That didn’t stop people from getting what they needed though, and goods were often payed for in many ways other than gold and silver. Paper money was accepted, if it was printed in the right place. Livestock was also a bartering tool. Valuables and trinkets, along with other services were also on the table for negotiation. A 45 cartridge cost around 12 cents, about the same price as a small drink of whiskey. If folks were broke, they could still go to a bar, slip a 45 bullet out of their gun belt, and order an ounce and a half, or ‘a shot’ of whiskey!