Technical terminology: wine cask units

Passed on to me by Joel Levin, from Mike Galos on Facebook  on 7/25: A display of English wine cask units, from the largest to the smallest: tun, butt, puncheon, hogshead, tierce, barrel, rundlet, kilderkin, firkin, pin:

To which I add pipe, a synonym for butt, and of course the smallest unit, the gallon, whether imperial or US

For the most part, the names originated as everyday names of wine (or beer) containers of various sizes, then were extended to semi-technical or technical usage as the name of a volume of drink, in a process we might call technification  — a process amply illustrated in the practices of biologists who adapt everyday vocabulary like fly, bug, worm, and petal as technical terms, and then often privilege their usage as the correct one, as if ordinary people were carelessly mis-using the vocabulary (yes, that pisses me off).

After a brief reflection on technification, I’ll pass to the vocabulary in the display above, noting that most of them are in frequent enough usage to make it into the New Oxford American Dictionary (a lexicography-based one-volume dictionary).

technification. From my 8/5/20 posting “Caterpillars spinning platters”:

The NOAD entry privileges the use of worm as a semi-technical term by biologists, as if the other senses are metaphorical offshoots of that. But an everyday category of creepy-crawly things referred to by the label worm is of course the older usage, which biologists then adapted to their purposes, as they did with fly and bug, among other labels.

The units. In detail, with definitions from NOAD, except as noted.

— noun tun: 1 [a] a large beer or wine cask. [b] a brewer’s fermenting vat. 2 an imperial measure of capacity, equal to 4 hogsheads. 3 (also tun shell) a large marine mollusc which has a rounded shell with broad spirals. Family Tonnidae, class Gastropoda.

— noun butt-4: [a] a cask, typically used for wine, ale, or water. [b] US a liquid measure equal to 2 hogsheads (equivalent to 126 US gallons).

— a synonym for butt: noun pipe: … 5 a cask for wine, especially as a measure equal to two hogsheads, usually equivalent to 105 [imperial] gallons (about 477 liters): a fresh pipe of port.

— The noun puncheon isn’t in NOAD, but from Wikipedia:

The puncheon was a British unit for beer, wines and spirits. It was also an American unit of capacity for wine.

Historically, the puncheon has been defined somewhere between 70 and 120 imperial gallons (318 and 546 litres; 84.1 and 144 US gallons).

The US puncheon for wine is defined as 84 US gallons (318 litres).

— noun hogshead (abbreviation hhd): [a] a large cask. [b] a measure of capacity for wine, equal to 63 [US] gallons (238.7 liters). [c] a measure of capacity for beer, equal to 64 [US] gallons (245.5 liters).

— noun tierce: 1 another term for terce. 2 Music an organ stop sounding two octaves and a major third above the pitch of the diapason. 3 (in piquet) a sequence of three cards of the same suit. 4 Fencing the third of eight standard parrying positions. 5 [a] a former measure of wine equal to one third of a pipe, usually equivalent to 35 [US] gallons (about 156 liters). [b] archaic a cask containing a certain quantity of provisions, the amount varying with the goods.

— noun barrel: 1 [a] a cylindrical container bulging out in the middle, traditionally made of wooden staves with metal hoops around them: the wine is then matured in old barrels. [b] a barrel together with its contents: a barrel of beer. [c] a measure of capacity used for oil and beer, usually equal to 36 imperial gallons for beer and 35 imperial gallons or 42 US gallons (roughly 159 liters) for oil: the well was producing 10,000 barrels a day. 2 a tube forming part of an object such as a gun or a pen: a gun barrel. 3 the belly and loins of a four-legged animal such as a horse: a Welsh mountain pony with a barrel like a butt of wine.

— noun rundlet not in NOAD. Bit from Wikipedia:

The rundlet is an archaic unit-like size of wine casks once used in Britain. It was equivalent to about 68 litres. It used to be defined as 18 wine gallons — one of several gallons then in use — before the adoption of the imperial system in 1824, afterwards it was 15 imperial gallons, which became the universal English base unit of volume in the British realm.

— noun kilderkin: [a] a cask for liquids or other substances, holding 16 or 18 [US] gallons. [b] a unit of measurement equivalent to the contents of a kilderkin.

— noun firkin: [a] a small cask formerly used for liquids, butter, or fish. [b] a unit of liquid volume equal to half a kilderkin (about 11 [US] gallons or 41 liters).

— noun pin: … 7 British historical a half-firkin cask for beer [or, presumably, wine].

10 Responses to “Technical terminology: wine cask units”

  1. J B Levin Says:

    George Reilly commented that he doubted this was the origin of the term “buttload”. In fact, the top references in a search contradict that. I found an interesting discussion and “infographic” at

    On the other hand, clicking on the images from that same search turned up a screenful of mostly pornographic thumbnails.

  2. georgevreilly Says:

    Likewise, I doubt that the carrying capacity of a donkey is the origin of “assload”. “Buttload” might have originally been a mishearing of “boatload”, but I suspect it was a vulgar intensifier like “assload” and “shitload”.

  3. georgevreilly Says:

    Most US measures are identical to the traditional British measures—foot, pound, mile, acre, etc. Volumes are not. A British pint is 20 fluid ounces, while an American pint is 16 fl oz. But the fluid ounces also differ: the US fl oz is 29.5735 milliliters, while the British is 28.4131. Accordingly, the British pint is about 20% larger than the American, not the 25% you would expect from 20/16.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Yes, and this is very irritating. I had to painstakingly go through my draft of this posting, adding notes every time “gallon” was used, to indicate whether these are imperial (British) or US units.

  4. Robert Coren Says:

    This triggers recollection of two rather obscure literary references which are stowed in my rag-bag of a brain:

    (1) Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise includes a minor character named Hector Puncheon, who gets mildly annoyed when Inspector Parker, mistaking his surname, addresses him as “Mr. Firkin”.

    (2) David McCord’s longish comic poem The Lacquer Liquor Locker includes these lines:

    Unhappy page! In such a rage a king is hard to calm;
    A butt or tun of ’51’s the proper kind of balm.

    (I found the full text quoted in a LiveJournal entry, with slightly different punctuation from what I remember; I believe I actually own a copy of the original, but if so it’s in my other house.)

    • J B Levin Says:

      Oh, wow, I would never have cottoned onto the Sayers joke (well maybe I would now), but I know I won’t miss it next time I read that book. (This book was also my introduction to a beverage called perry.)

      And this doesn’t tell us how big the Cask of Amontillado was, although I don’t recall if there actually was such a cask.

      • Robert Coren Says:

        Same for me about the perry.

        To the best of my recollection, there was no such cask; its supposed existence was merely bait.

  5. Robert Southwick Richmond Says:

    I always did wonder what “putting up a pipe of port for your son’s coming of age” meant. A pipe or butt is over a hundred gallons, I just learned. It must have anticpated quite a large party!

    • georgevreilly Says: notes that “Nowadays, the custom has faded, one reason being that few cellars today can accommodate the 700-plus bottles of wine that constitute a full pipe.”

      • Robert Southwick Richmond Says:

        I have trouble visualizing 99 bottles of beer on the wall, let alone 700 bottles of wine. Imagine stacking about 60 twelve-bottle cases of wine, no more than four high. You’d need the equivalent of a large clothes closet, in the basement, that could be securely locked. A fitting symbol of the affluence, stability, and of course primogeniture of the English aristocratic class, long ago.

        No kin (or perhaps, pace Pinafore, some kin) to the fabled drunken captain who was piped aboard and then poured into bed.

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