By Natalie MacLean
Last night’s startling discovery: there are more adjectives for drunkenness than there are Inuit words for snow. And I’m not just talking about being intoxicated or inebriated, or even blotto, blasted or bombed.
There are well over 3,000 descriptors—just looking at the list makes me feel tipsy. What’s more interesting is the difference between the words used for men and women, young and old, bodily and behavioural effects—and how expressions vary across cultures and languages to reveal both positive and negative views.
I had lots of help researching this subject from friends who came up with a bandwagon of terms. And contrary to what they suggested, simply being a wine writer of Scottish-Irish descent does not make me an international authority.
First, the cooking and baking category—words that describe the effect of drink on our internal organs as though they’re pot roasts (stewed, boiled, brewed, smoked, sauced, soaked, basted, boiled, fried), preserves (jarred, canned, corked, pickled, juiced, minced) or pastries (baked, pie-eyed, buttered, toasted).
Soused, for example, comes from seventeenth-century English, originally meaning “to marinate,” and is closely related to sozzled—“made moist.” So to be precise, we get sozzled before we get soused.
Other adjectives observe our behavior: drunks are childish (a bag of toys) or crazy: gone, gonzo, knackered, loopy, out of it, scattered, snappered, zoned, zonkers, zombied, cockeyed, comatose or just plain stupid.
(And yet to use the definition of any one of these words sounds odd, as in “I’m going to drink myself into a low level of intelligence tonight.”)
Drinking brings out our animal nature, making us drunk as a skunk, weasel-eyed, ratted, rat-arsed, zoo’d, ripped as a newt, boiled as an owl, howling, hog- whimpering or roaring drunk.
Those of us who drank too much at college dorm parties may also recall the extreme adjectives, even murder metaphors, of our youth—and indeed we probably did kill off parts of our brains and livers.
They were generally grouped by method: sharp instrument (half-cut, ripped, let her rip, screwed), blunt instrument (hammered, smashed, whammed, slammed, stoned, ossified), poison (polluted, gassed, trashed), electrocution (wired, buzzed, zapped, blistered), hanging (tied one on, looped, strung out, twisted) and car accident (not firing on all cylinders, well-oiled, shellacked, lubricated, pumped up, totaled, mashed, wrecked).
Then there was injury or death from no apparent cause (done in, ruined, obliterated, decimated, paralytic, legless, blind drunk, dead drunk).
From fighting, we get thrashed, lashed, wasted and clobbered. Spifflicated—“given a thorough thrashing and overcome completely”—comes from the eighteenth-century English combination of stifle and suffocate.
In 1818, Sir Thomas Moore wrote, “Alas, alas, our ruins’s fated, all done up and spifflicated.”
Now that we’ve matured, most of us prefer to get mellow rather than mangled—enjoying that drowsy sunlit windowsill feeling. The adjectives, too, are more genteel: sociable, feeling no pain, woozy, have a glow on, over-refreshed, euphoric, afflicted.
Women are more euphemized than men: we’re tipsy, in our cups, tiddly or whiffled—as if we’ve been tippling with Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby. But real men get tight, lagered or liquored up.
Celebrities are never more than “tired and emotional”—presumably needing rest at a rustic Betty Ford resort. But working-class adjectives sound as though we’re doing home renovations or landscaping: plastered, pasted, lamped, lit, well-irrigated, hosed, ploughed.
Some expressions are easily understood: wearing your wobbly boots, having a close look at the footpath, under the table, full of loud-mouth soup or predicting earthquakes. But others seem to come from another time.
Three sheets to the wind is a nineteenth-century naval phrase: sheets are what landlubbers like me would call ropes and they control the sails. “Three sheets to the wind” means that those ropes weren’t tied down but left flapping, hence “to the wind.”
To be half in the bag (nearly drunk) or in the bag (fully drunk), may be either a shortened version of the breathalyzer bag or simply a bag holding (and concealing) the booze.
Going on a bender referred both to the crooked way a drunk walks and the random violent acts in which he might cause. Got a jag on means drinking to excess; but a jag is also used for other types of emotional breakdowns, such as a crying jag.
Drunk as blazes is a corruption of the 1860 drunk as blaziers, after the participants in a feast in honor of St. Blaize.
But perhaps more revealing is to look across cultures and languages. My French-speaking friends insist that there aren’t nearly as many words for drunk in their own language because in their culture, they grew with alcohol as something to be enjoyed in moderation rather than forbidden.
Nevertheless, the French say Il est paqueté (literally, he’s parceled up, bagged) or bourré (stuffed or loaded).
There’s Si ma mère m’avait donné du lait comme ça, je serais encore avec elle. (If my mother had given me milk like this, I’d still be with her) and Il boirait la mer et les poissons (He would drink the whole ocean, along with the fish).
Another expression must be accompanied by the appropriate gesture: someone says Je suis completement (I am full) or Plein comme un oeuf (full like an egg), then makes a fist, brings the thumb and forefinger to his nose and makes an unscrewing motion.
In Spanish, they talk about catching a hake or a cigala (large crayfish) in an ocean of fish. A borracho is a drunk.
The Japanese say getting yoed (having one too many) or chidori ashi (drunks who walk like a bird called chidori, which scampers right and left, never in a straight line).
In Germany they say Ich bin blau (I am blue) or Ich habe einen schwips, which means I have a schwips, both onomatopeic (drunken speech is often bubbly) as well as related to one of the German words for hiccup.
Shickered, which conveniently rhymes with liquored, is Australian slang for intoxicated. It comes from the early twentieth-century Yiddish shiker, a drunk.
And some folks use Adrian Quist, the Australian tennis champ from the 1960s, because it rhymes with I’m pissed. (Which brings to mind the entire scabrous family of adjectives: stinko, shit-faced and crapulous.)
Latin doesn’t just give us In vino, veritas (in wine, the truth—as in a few glasses will get anyone talking freely) but also Plures crapula quam gladius (Drunkenness kills more than the sword).
In Austria, they say, “Er hat zu tief ins Glas geguckt.” (He looked too deeply into his glass). In Russia, “Let’s have a drink, even if it’s just Paulina Ivanovna.” (Paulina Ivanovna is a brand of furniture polish consumed by drunks for its alcohol content—others use the phrase to mean a simple drink, nothing fancy.)
A friend’s late grandfather used to own a pub in Ireland. According to him, his grandfather was the quintessential Irish publican: the local moneylender, church usher, political organizer and boozehound.
Every couple of months, he’d hire a barkeeper for three or four days and announce that he was going on his holidays. The journey entailed him wobbling over to the other side of the bar and staying there for the duration.
While on these holidays, none of the regulars would talk to him about money, business or politics. That phrase became part of the local vernacular—and holidays were taken every couple of months for sixty glorious years.
Another story says that in Dublin pubs, the bartender would try to calm everyone by telling them to “mind their Ps and Qs”—P stood for pint and Q for quart. Others claim that regulars would admonish the barman with those words, to make sure that he tallied their bill correctly—and didn’t charge them for a quart when they only drank a pint.
Still, yet another origin story says that this advice was to printers’ apprentices to avoid confusing the backward-facing metal type lowercase Ps and Qs, or the same advice to children who were learning to write.
Regardless, they all ended up at the pub after a long day (well, except the children). And apparently there used to be whistles on the tops of the beer mugs—when you wanted a refill, you would blow your whistle or wet your whistle.
The English language is a living thing if the number of new words to describe modern-day drunkenness is any indication. There’s Merl Haggarded, after the king of mournful country-western drinking songs and Moulin Rouged from the recent musical movie about booze-soaked Bohemian Paris in 1900.
The high-tech crowd gives us rendered and pixilated. Out West, they talk about being Campbelled or inKleined to have one too many, after the drinking exploits of the premiers of British Columbia, Gordon Campbell, and Alberta, Ralph Klein.
The range of words we use to describe excessive drinking is unmatched by those for overeating, exercising or even copulating.
Perhaps that’s because getting loaded hits our sensory circuits like nothing else: not only are we full of alcohol, but we’re also full of the loudest laughter, the biggest gestures, the tenderest sympathies, the grandest schemes and the blackest rages. (And the next morning, we’re often filled with the deepest regrets.)
Yet when most of us are obliviated, we’ve lost the nuances of diction and etymology to describe how we’re feeling—or we’re in denial:
“I’m not affluenced by incohol at all.”