, Newburyport, MA

March 11, 2013

Name your poison!

As Good As Your Word
Jonathan Wells

---- — “A good sherry sack hath a two-fold operation in it. It ascends me into the brain, dries me there all the foolish and dull and crudy vapors which environ it, makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit.”

Shakespeare’s great comic hero Falstaff makes a pretty good case not just for sherry sack but for all kinds of “[in]temperance beverages” that are composed in significant part of ethyl alcohol. This simple chemical (C2 H5 OH) is a byproduct of many biological processes, and has been a much-sought-after drink immemorially — that is to say, from a “[t]ime whereof the Memory of Man runneth not to the contrary.” It’s been made, used and misused since at least 7,000 years BCE (although this may, if Bishop Ussher’s reckoning is correct, be some 3,000 years before the creation of the world.)

To paraphrase Poe, many millions have “sought to borrow from this drink surcease of sorrow;” and as many again have used the bottle to break out of the tedium of a harsh or unrewarding existence. As one Joseph Winner’s 1869 drinking song put it, “Ah, ha, ha, you and me, little brown jug how I love thee!”

It is put more elegantly in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

“The Grape that can with Logic absolute,

The Two-and-Seventy jarring Sects confute:

The sovereign Alchemist that in a trice,

Life’s leaden metal into Gold transmute.”

More congenially, “One of the great pleasures in life is being in the pub with friends having a laugh and setting the world to rights, gradually getting pissed” (Author unknown). And more practically, “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker” (Ogden Nash) or “Alcohol is necessary for a man so that he can have a good opinion of himself, undisturbed be the facts” (Finley Peter Dunne’s Irish sage, Mr. Dooley).

The importance ascribed to alcohol can be seen in the names given to various drinks: Celtic “uisge beatha” — water of life, a word that evolved into “usquebaugh” and finally into “whisky” (spelled this way in Scotland and Canada, and apparently “whiskey” everywhere else). Whisky was and may still be known by the evocative name of “spiritus frumenti” — the distilled spirit of the grain. The same reverence developed in Scandinavia where a favorite beverage Akvavit derived its name from the Latin “aqua vitae” — the Water of Life again.

As would be suggested by the existence of such an old and widespread custom as drinking, there have been at least hundreds — and very likely thousands — of words created to describe the effects of wines, beers and liquors on the human body and spirit. Even today, from only a few of the world’s languages, one website has accumulated 365 words describing some degree of alcoholic influence (, of which most seem describe it unfavorably.

The most formal and legal of these terms is “intoxicated.” Way back when, it meant “full of poison” from the Latin in + toxicare “to poison,” from toxicum “poison.” The modern usage “make drunk” first appeared over 400 years ago, but the old meaning is still important, alcohol poisoning being a very modern problem. We move from “intoxicated” to “inebriated,” and then for example and more or less in order of blood-alcohol level (?) tipsy, mellow, under the influence, feeling no pain, in his cups, pie-eyed, crocked, bombed, blotto, or in my college days ****-faced, pickled and loaded. Nautical types might say, “He’s half-seas over” (source unclear) or “three sheets in the wind,” meaning figuratively that he’s lost control of his boat. We might toss in a German word which sounds right — “Beschwipst!.” What terms did you use in your (hopefully not misspent) youth?

It is not always the drunk synonyms that are important. The modifiers Mark Twain uses in his short story, “The Story of Grandfather’s Old Ram,” are delightful because they are so unexpected. The boys (his companions at a mining camp) tell him that one Jim Blaine had a wonderful story to tell about that ram, but he would only do it when he was just “comfortably and socially drunk.” Recounts Twain: “I never so pined to see a man uncompromisingly drunk before. At last, one evening I hurried to his cabin, for I learned that this time his situation was such that even the most fastidious could find no fault with it — he was tranquilly, serenely, symmetrically drunk — not a hiccup to mar his voice, not a cloud upon his brain thick enough to obscure his memory.” (Jim starts telling a long complicated story but as always falls asleep before he gets to the old ram. The story is more than worth a Google or a trip to the library.)

The title, “Name your poison!” is a phrase people of my parents’ generation used to find out what their guests wanted to drink. To sell the second drink they might say: “A bird can’t fly on one wing!” Now, how about “One for the Road?”


Jonathan Wells of Newbury welcomes comments at