April 27, 2022

Taking The Fifth

 It is 5am on the 27th of April in the year 2022.  The temperature outside is 5 degrees.  I am the fifth son of a family of seven children, all grown now, one gone, so six now.  As I am up and awake at this ungodly hour, I am reflecting, not in a shiny thing in the sun, but more of a perusal of the many meanings of “ the fifth”.   

In law, when they speak of the “fifth degree”, it is understood that “The fifth degree means any person by blood, adoption, or marriage as follows: a spouse, or a surviving spouse, child, grandchild, great-grandchild, parent, grandparent, great- grandparent, great-great grandparent, sibling, nephew or niece, grand nephew or grand niece, great-grand nephew or great-grand niece, uncle or ...” essentially, the fifth degree is just about anybody you are related to by blood, adoption or marriage.  It appears to be a fairly broad designation.

In medical terms, “ the fifth degree” is a classification of a burn that is so severe, that “ results in all the skin and most of the muscle layer and ligaments in the area burned away. It is not uncommon to see charred bone in a fifth-degree burn. Char results when the oxygen and hydrogen in the skin burns. When char is present, the wound requires a graft and will leave a permanent scar.” A permanent scar? Do you think? “ As a result, fifth-degree burns are often fatal.“

In music, the fifth degree is named as “Each note of a scale has a special name,” and is “called a scale degree. The first (and last) note is called the tonic. The fifth note is called the dominant. “

In modern slang, the fifth degree is “Used to describe the punishment someone is going to or already has gotten. Usually the punishment is disproportionate to the crime.”

These definitions sum up giving or being designated.  But taking is different than giving. When one “takes the fifth”, it means that one is taking advantage of the fifth amendment to the US Constitution, when one can “plead the fifth,  meaning to refuse to answer a question, especially in a criminal trial, on the grounds that you might incriminate yourself.”

A fifth is also a bottle of liquor. “ For instance, a standard 750-milliliter bottle (also called a "fifth") is 25.4 ounces. That results in about 16 shots of liquor, and if it's the base spirit (such as vodka, tequila, or whiskey), you can generally expect to make 16 cocktails from one bottle.“ 

This term fifth, however, “comes from when bottles were 4/5 of a quart, which is the same as 1/5 of a gallon.”

 Why Do We Still Use the Term Fifth? 

If you take this type of fifth, you most likely are a teenager raiding your father’s liquor cabinet. If you actually take it, not as in straight thieving, but as in consumption, you would be well on the way to alcohol poisoning. Take it from me, as I have been there, once consuming on a birthday, my 30th if I remember correctly, 16 bourbon Manhatans. Now that is a lot of cherries. Especially considering that a Manhattan contains more than a single shot from a fifth, be it bourbon or rye.


  • 2 ounces rye whiskey

  • 1 ounce sweet vermouth

  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters

  • 1 dash orange bitters

  • Garnish: brandied cherry or lemon twist

    I remember back in the 90’s at The Gate, long gone club that was the hotspot for the Swing revival,  I met a woman DJ  from Seattle, who drank only Manhattans, and only with 5 cherries.  In this incarnation of my band The Jazzmanian Devils, we had been persuaded to rebrand ourselves as The Blue Devils, and present our eclectic musical offerings to the retro Swing crowd as swing.  To say we sold our soul for 5 pieces of gold is no understatement, as the Swing Kids, the dancers, they were not fooled.  Our exclusive drinking club did not offer enough consistent beats for extended swing dancing, i.e. our songs were too short, we were too long in the tooth, and long past our fifth Manhattan on most nights.   If my memory is a bit harsh, I plead the fifth, being the fifth child, having consumed many a fifth, scarring my liver, not the fifth degree, as that would imply more than a burning stomach or headache the next day, but an actual charring.   As jarring as the morning after was, it was rarely charring.  

    Another fifth is the fifth wheel.  

    “n. Person who accompanies two (or more) couples in a social situation, who does not have a partner of his or her own. Often the fifth person's attendance is encouraged by one of the well-meaning but ignorant female partners, who may feel sorry for the lonely person, but will inevitably ignore them once the lovemaking starts. It carries the connotation that the fifth person is often an unneccesary and unwelcome addition to the scene in these conditions. Derived from "the fifth wheel of a car", which needing only four wheels to run, has no need of a fifth.”
    This definition does take into consideration that every car has four wheels, but also a spare, in case of flats. In basketball, the spare off the bench is called the 6th man, not the fifth, as the fifth player is normally “The center (C), also known as the five, pivot or big man, usually plays near the baseline or close to the basket (the "low post"). “
    And now it is 5:59.  I have spent an hour after only 5 hours sleep reflecting on the meanings of Fifth, and 5.  But now we are 6, which brings to mind A.E. Milne. 
    When I was One, 
    I had just begun. 
    When I was Two, 
    I was nearly new. 
    When I was Three 
    I was hardly me. 
    When I was Four, 
    I was not much more. 
    When I was Five, 
    I was just alive. 
    But now I am Six, 
    I'm as clever as clever, 
    So I think I'll be six now for ever and ever. 

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