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Why does English have so many terms for being drunk?

There are many hundreds of words and phrases for being drunk, not just in modern times, but also throughout the history of slang. A study by one of today’s leading chroniclers of slang, Jonathon Green, of half a millennium’s worth of collected material—amounting to almost 100,000 words and phrases—shows the extent to which the same themes recur. Back in 1938, one J.Y.P. Greig wrote in the Edinburgh Review that ‘the chief stimuli of slang are sex, money and intoxicating liquor’.

Factoring in the relatively new development of illicit drug-taking, together with the less openly celebrated bodily functions and a few choice insults; you have to conclude that Mr Greig had it right.

Standard English has just a handful of words for being intoxicated. Slang, on the other hand, has over 3,000. In dictionaries of slang, drunkenness comes third in the number of terms that have existed for it over the centuries, after crime and drugs. Today, you can be muntered, mullered, p***ed, slaughtered, blitzed, wrecked, trashed, plastered, sloshed, s**t-faced, wasted, bombed, canned, hammered, loaded, buzzed, smashed, or f***ed. And that’s just for starters.

The reason for such proliferation is probably born from the need for disguise. The role of slang has always been to keep others guessing. Its first role is to be a code that keeps those in the know in, and those who are not, out. As soon as the code is cracked and outsiders (often the authorities, especially parents or the police) scale the wall, then a new word is needed. Whether as an essential means of subterfuge in the criminal underworld (where Cockney rhyming slang began for just that reason) or as a marker of identity, slang is almost designed to be secret. It is a game that has been played for centuries.

Drinking has long been a habit that invites secrecy and euphemism, often mixed in with a good dose of humour. The eighteenth century saw a strong need to tiptoe around gin, creating a wonderful cocktail of terms in the process, including diddle, sweetstuff, strip-me-naked, tiger’s milk, tittery (because gin makes you titter, an older term for ‘totter’), royal bob, and the rhyming slang needle and pin, although mother’s ruin, another euphemism of the time, certainly told it as it was.

The term three sheets to the wind is at least as old as the early nineteenth century; it is a nautical metaphor suggesting that the drinker is ‘top heavy’. The sheet harks back to the days of sailing ships, when it was the rope or chain attached to the lower corners of a sail and used to extend it, or to alter its direction. To have had one over the eight is to have had more than eight pints (i.e. a whole gallon), an excessive intake of alcohol.

Many terms go back much further still. The simple word booze has been around for over 500 years, while other very old terms compare a drunken person to an animal—to a newt, for example, or to a skunk or a rat. Back in ancient Roman times, the favourite comparison was a bit different—it was to a thrush. This seems curious, but it was probably quite common in the autumn months to see thrushes tottering around in the vineyards after eating partly fermented grapes that they had stolen from the vats. So familiar must this scene have been that the Romans created a verb meaning to be drunk based on turdus, the Latin name for a thrush. A descendant, many centuries later, in Old French, was the adjective estourdi, which over time changed from meaning drunk or dazed to violent or reckless. When English took it over, thanks to the conquering warriors, the violent and reckless invaders were the strongest, and so sturdy was born. And so even innocent words may have had a drunken past.

Whether euphemistic or dysphemistic (its opposite: in other words, plain rude), it seems unlikely that the lexicon of drunkenness will tail off any time soon.

An extract from What Made the Crocodile Cry? by Susie Dent
In the book What Made the Crocodile Cry?, Susie Dent draws on her popular television segment on the curiosities of English to tackle fascinating puzzles.

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