, Newburyport, MA


March 11, 2013

Name your poison!


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?

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