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The fermented rice alcohol called "sake" in English is usually referred to as 日本酒【にほんしゅ】 in Japanese, while 酒【さけ】 merely means "alcohol" in general.

Yet, all dictionaries list both "alcohol" and "fermented rice alcohol/sake/nihonshu" as translations for the word 酒.

Lately, I have noticed 酒 used a few times in movies to mean "nihonshu" specifically (e.g. with one character ordering a beer, and another ordering "sake").

I imagine the use of 酒 for "sake" was the standard in ancient times (and only evolved after the introduction of other popular alcoholic beverages), but can anybody tell me if there is any modern context where it is still commonly used? In such a case, would it be more or less formal?

Edit: Yuji's answer below also made me realise that the use of the polite form (お酒) might play a role in differentiating the two senses (?)

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I think this is somewhat equivalent to ご飯、which was also confusing enough to warrant some questions (admittedly, non of them about the dual meaning of the word, but the issue became prominent in both threads).

In essence, you can say that ご飯 generally means a meal, but can also have the more specific meaning of cooked rice. This more specific meaning also serves as a default meaning of sorts: depending on the context, you may assume ご飯 specifically refers to cooked rice.

In the same way, (お)酒 may mean alcoholic beverages in general (equivalent to the English 'booze', except that the latter is very informal) or 日本酒 as its default more specific meaning.

This is not an uncommon phenomenon at all. A few decades ago (and to some degree, it's still true today), 'tea' generally meant any beverage made by extracting the flavor of tea leaves, but the default meaning was black tea. If you wanted a cup of green tea or oolong tea, you'd usually have to explicitly ask for it - otherwise you'd just get black tea (and with an atrocious heapful of sugar at that :)). In Japan, on the other hand, the default meaning of (お)茶 was (and probably still is) 緑茶, that is green tea.

This is all very culturally dependent, and rather easy to explain, though there are some cases where such a 'default meaning' doesn't have much to do with culture. I can't think of English or Japanese examples for such cases, unfortunately. :(

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It is perfectly normal to use お酒 in modern context.

In English you don't often say "Let's drink alcohol," but in Japanese it's perfectly normal to say "一緒にお酒を飲みましょう" (i.e. let's drink alcohol together.) In this case お酒 can stand for any type of alcoholic beverages.

For example, we often see public signs saying "お酒は二十歳になってから" (drinking alcohol is after you become 20 years old.)

Furthermore, if you have specific intention to drink beer or wine, I guess we say "ビールにしましょう" or "ワインにしましょう", so there's a good chance if I say お酒をのみましょう it means we end up drinking 日本酒。

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thanks for your answer! but I am afraid you are missing the main point of my question. I know that [お]酒 is a very common word in modern Japanese: I use it all the time ;-) I was referring to the particular use of "酒" when meaning specifically "fermented rice wine" (otherwise known as 日本酒)... For example, I am not sure I would be well understood if, when prompted by a waiter at my local izakaya for my order, I just said "酒"... –  Dave Jun 18 '11 at 5:13
    
Aah, now I see what you were asking :p –  Yuji Jun 18 '11 at 5:17
    
No worries... Don't hesitate to edit your answer to make it more fitting to the question. But for example, you say to you "お酒を飲みましょう" implies 日本酒, but I think in a lot of cases if I said that to friends, they would understand it as "let's go drink (anything)", not particularly sake. Also, could it be that the use of お酒 instead of just 酒 makes it more likely to be 日本酒? –  Dave Jun 18 '11 at 5:20
    
Uhm, that's a difficult question. The problem might be that I like 日本酒, so when I say 酒 it often really means 日本酒 ... :p But that might not be the case with other Japanese. –  Yuji Jun 18 '11 at 5:36
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