In the beginning, one was simply drunken or fordrunken (“very drunk”). But already the Anglo-Saxons had begun to develop a more sophisticated vocabulary. One could be oferdrunken (“overdrunk”) or indruncen (“saturated with drink”), symbelgal (“wanton with drink-feasting”) or symbel wlonc (“elated with drink-feasting”), or simply dryncwerig (“drink-weary”). But nothing in Old English vocabulary anticipates the extraordinary growth of alcoholic lexicon over the next thousand years. The adjectives for being drunk provide one of the longest lists in the thesaurus.
The history of drinking vocabulary is an exercise in semantics rather than sociolinguistics. Terms for being drunk can’t usually be explained by referring to such variables as age, gender, social class, occupation, or regional background. Being drunk cuts across barriers. The list below shows only the occasional indication of a class preference (such as genteel whiffled vs thieves’ cant suckey), and occupational origins are seen only in some nautical expressions (three sheets, oversparred, up the pole, tin hat, honkers), though the etymology is not always definite. There are very few formal terms in the list, apart from a few expressions fostered by the law (intoxicated, over the limit), and some early scholarly words (inebriate(d), temulent, ebrious). Local regional variations are sometimes apparent, such as from Scotland (fou, strut, swash, blootered, swacked), England (bottled, pissed, ratarsed), and Australia (blue, rotten, shickery, plonked, on one’s ear); and since the eighteenth century most new words in this semantic field have started out in the United States. But it’s rare to find a word that stays in one country for long, and these days online slang dictionaries have largely broken down geographical boundaries.
Why has this field developed to the extent that writers regularly make a special collection of these words? We see it early on in John Ray’s collection of proverbs (1678) or Benjamin Franklin’s Drinker’s Dictionary (1737), and artful classifications of degrees of drunkenness antedate these (see foxdrunk, 1592). It’s tempting to think that the linguistic innovation is a direct result of the uninhibited behaviour which follows a bout of drinking. Certainly there are some highly idiosyncratic (and often inexplicable) coinages in the list, such as pepst, pottical, fap, paid, muckibus, stocious, andschnockered. Many words are represented by just a single citation. And several seem to be motivated by the sound of the word as much as by any meaning it might have: jingled, whift, whiffled, squiffy, whittled, spiflicated, zonked. The etymology is often unclear, though in a few cases a linguistic source is known, as with Hindi poggled or Yiddishshickery and plotzed.
There seems to be a universal trend to avoid stating the obvious. To describe someone as simply drunk, in drink, or in liquor is accurate but evidently uninspiring. One fruitful vein is to find terms that characterize drunken appearance (owleyed, pieeyed, cockeyed, lumpy, blue, lit) or behaviour, especially erratic movement (slewed, bumpsy, reeling ripe, tow row, rocky, on one’s ear, zigzag, tipped, looped) or lack of any movement at all (stiff, paralytic). Another is mental state, such as being muddled (fuddled, muzzed, queer, woozy), elated (highflown, wired, pixilated), or worn down (whittled, halfshaved, rotten, crocked, the worse for wear).
Some of the earliest descriptive terms come from the containers used by drinkers: The fourteenth-century cupshotten is the first, but later centuries have given us such words as potshotten, jugbitten, tapshackled, flagonal, tanked, canned, potted, and bottled, as well as the more genteel in one’s cups. The contents of the container are also productive, as with sack sopped, groggy, lushy, malty, rummy, swizzled, skimished, plonked, andbevvied. And the fact that the drinks are, by definition, liquid, has resulted in several more, such as soaken, wet, swilled, swash, sozzled, blotto, and liquefied. At the other extreme, euphemisms bear witness to the desire to avoid making any direct allusion at all to the drinking situation: concerned, disguised, under the influence, tired and emotional.
Some of the most interesting terms are those where drinkers exaggerate their state during or after a drinking session, usually by suggesting the thoroughness of their achievement. The notion of being “completely filled” is one theme: Topped, loaded, overseen, overflown, overshot, well lubricated, welloiled, drinkdrowned. The notion of reaching a maximum is reinforced by the frequent use of the particle up (boozed up, tanked up, etc.). By comparison, there are relatively few words for being mildly drunk (such as tight and squiffy), though attempts at quantification can be made (as in halftanked and halfcut). Cooking is another theme, especially since the eighteenth century: Stewed, boiled, pickled, soused, fried, steamed. And hurtful danger provides a third theme, especially in the twentieth century: hit under the wing, shot in the neck, scratched, cut, shot, stung, stunned, toxed, polluted, gassed, bombed. The lexicon of drink can at times be very dark.
These days, though, the leading question for the lexicologist has to be: what exactly isthe lexicon of drink? Many of the words formerly associated with drinking are now associated with drugs, such as high, loaded, pieeyed, piped, potted, wasted, and blasted.Often it is simply unclear, without further context, what state a person is in. Indeed, sometimes there is a three-way ambiguity, as a further meaning has emerged that is to do with neither alcohol nor drugs. If someone says they are zonked, are they drunk, high, or just tired out?
A Selected Timeline of Terms for “Drunk”
One is “overcome with liquor.” This is shotten in the sense of “discharged” or “emptied”: Everything is gone from the cup. A form cupshot is also recorded, but much later, in 1593. There’s a link with the noun, as in a shot of brandy.
The first instance of boozy, spelled with ou or ow until the eighteenth century. An early use of a verb bouse is recorded in c.1300, from Dutch (where it was originally the name of a drinking vessel), but it doesn’t become common until the sixteenth century, along with the adjective, at first chiefly in the cant of thieves and beggars. “Up rose the bowzy Sire,” writes Alexander Pope in the New Dunciad (1742, line 485), one of a long line of poets to be attracted to the word.
The verb fuddle, “to have a drinking bout,” is known from the late sixteenth century, and led to several idioms, such as to fuddle one’s cap or nose—“to get drunk.” The rhyme with muddle brought a later blurring of the two meanings, so that, when we read (in an 1830 publication) “I was not drunk, I was only fuddled,” it isn’t clear whether the sense is “slightly drunk” or “not drunk at all.” Modern usage of fuddle tends to go for the “confused” sense (as with befuddled).
A jocular usage reported in an anecdote of Horace Walpole (in a letter to George Montagu, April 20): At a supper, he hears Lady Coventry say that “if she drank anymore, she should be muckibus.” Lady Mary Coke enquired what this meant, and was told that it was “Irish for sentimental.” The mock-Latin ending is known from other facetious eighteenth-century slang formations, such as stinkibus, but there’s no obvious connection with muck. Lady Coventry came from Ireland. The likelihood is that Walpole misheard a genuine Irish word, perhaps maoithneach “sentimental.”
Blooter—spelled also as bluiter and bloother—is a sixteenth-century Scots word for a noisy fool or clumsy oaf. It had developed a verb use by the nineteenth century, andblootered “very drunk” was one of the consequences. It’s still used in Scotland, as well as in Northern Ireland and parts of the north of England. In the twentieth century, it turns up again in Ireland as a jocular colloquialism, peloothered (1914).
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, switchel and swizzle were slang names for drinks made of various mixes, such as molasses and water. A green swizzle was popular in the West Indies, acknowledged by P. G. Wodehouse in The Rummy Affair of Old Biffy (1925): Bertie Wooster observes, “if ever I marry and have a son, Green Swizzle Wooster is the name that will go down in the register.” The origins are unclear. Eric Partridge thought swizzle could be a blend of swig and guzzle. There’s a dialect background too: A swizzler was a name for a drunkard in Yorkshire. A New York Timesarticle in 1910 explains it by saying that swizzled means “beaten, as with an egg-beater, into a froth.” Whatever the origin, swizzled “totally drunk” had a vogue which lasted into the twentieth century.
The analogy is probably with blots and blotting paper, which soaks up ink as a person soaks up drink. It was a favorite piece of upper-class slang in the first half of the twentieth century. Here is Freddie, hungover, in the opening chapter of P. G. Wodehouse’s Jill the Reckless (1920, ch. 1): “I was possibly a little blotto. Not whiffled, perhaps, but indisputably blotto.”
Clearly from plonk, the facetious pronunciation of blanc 1943 (as in vin blanc “white wine”) which was widely used in Australia and New Zealand before traveling around the English-speaking world as a term for any kind of cheap wine. A drunkard addicted to plonk (a plonko) would be very definitely plonked, or plonked up.
Probably, along with snockered (1961), a jocular adaptation 1955 of snookered, the analogy being based on the way snooker players find themselves unable to hit their target ball directly because other balls are in the way. The word had long been used figuratively to refer to people in a difficult or impossible position. The sch variant might have been an echo of drunken speech, or even of Yiddish.
A Yiddish expression, from the verb plotz “crack, split,” which led to several US slang uses, recorded since the 1920s, such as “display strong emotion” (“she plotzed for joy”) and “sit down wearily” (“I plotzed into an easy chair”). Either or both of these nuances could have led to the association with drunkenness.
Reprinted from WORDS IN TIME AND PLACE: Exploring Language Through the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary by David Crystal with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © David Crystal 2014.