“Jesus, I got drunk last night.”
“Yeah, you were shitfaced.”
I’d put good money on the odds of every one of us having this conversation — or an iteration thereof — on at least one Saturday afternoon. The biggest differences in these morning-after exchanges? The words we use to describe our levels of inebriation.
According to Paul Dickson, a lexicographer, consulting editor at Merriam-Webster and author of dozens of dictionary-like compilations of words and phrases, the English language has more synonyms for “drunk” than any other word.
In his 2009 compendium Drunk: The Definitive Drinker’s Dictionary, Dickson compiles and explains, when necessary, just under 3,000 ways to say intoxicated.
Why so many words to describe the same condition?
At first glance you could make an argument similar to the fairly controversial discussion surrounding the number of words for “snow” used by the indigenous peoples of Arctic regions like Siberia and Alaska: One word simply cannot encompass all the nuance required to describe such a phenomenon. And let’s be frank: English speakers have made a habit of getting tipsy, toasted and annihilated for centuries.
In 1737, Benjamin Franklin compiled 228 terms of intoxication in his Drinker’s Dictionary. H.L. Mencken added 25 terms to Franklin’s list in The American Language in 1921. In 1927, at the height of Prohibition, Edmund Wilson penned 105 terms of drunkenness, in ascending order, in “The Lexicon of Prohibition.” Langston Hughes compiled his own list in his 1958 column “How Many Words for Drunk” in the Chicago Defender.
Dickson held the Guinness World Record for the highest number of ways to say “drunk” (2,231) in 1983, and broke it 10 years later by adding 429 terms. Drunk is his latest record-breaking publication, taking everything from Chaucer’s English to Text-message-ese and putting it in one place. It took years, and the help of linguists, lexicographers, doctors, bartenders and researchers.
One could argue that we need nearly 3,000 words to describe the range and appearance of the effects of alcohol, and that’s largely Dickson’s claim. In the introduction to Drunk he posits four key theories:
- Being drunk is a self-imposed condition and therefore “invites words implying folly, foolishness and self-inflicted dementia. People who are drunk look funny. … There is a slurring of speech and lack of visual focus that inspires wordplay.”
- People who drink to the point of intoxication often prefer euphemisms to the cold hard truth. As Dickson notes, “Better to say that one was ‘a little squiffy’ last night than to admit intoxication.”
- Libel. “Tired and emotional” is apparently the most frequently used British euphemism to say someone was drunk.
- As Stuart Flexner proposed in I Hear America Talking, the reason we have so many words for “drunk” is that “people get drunk for different reasons and it affects them in different ways.” The mass of synonyms “simply reflects these many feelings and reactions.”
There may very well be a few, or a dozen, maybe even a few dozen, new words developed or discovered in the last 10 years that should be added to Dickson’s list, but I’m really not sure we need any more. The book runs the gamut from the enlightened to the foul, sophomoric to serene.
Here’s the final cut of the most outlandish, hilarious, can’t-be-said-better words, phrases and sounds (because not all of these are words) for “shitfaced” I culled from scouring the 188 pages of Drunk.
While most of the terms and phrases here are, I think, fairly self-explanatory, for the particularly outlandish I’ve provided some insight. I have, also, included some classic standbys (“banged-up” will forever be a personal favorite) and nearly everything that involves becoming one with a piece of furniture… or otherwise conveys that said person can’t for the life of them function.
Because I laughed out loud when I read them and I’d like to pass that gift along. Especially if you’re reading this on the subway. Or in a Lyft. Or, ideally, in a crowded elevator.
- A guest in the attic
- Amiably incandescent
- At peace with the floor
- Been seeing Dr. Bottle
- Betty Ford-ed
- Beyond salvage
- Called the wharf cat
- Colt 45’d
- Chemically inconvenienced
- Cork high and bottle deep
- Cup stricken
- Detained on business
- Driving home ’cause I can’t fucking walk (never a good thing in practice; extremely amusing as hyperbole)
- Dripped to the tits
- Fed his kitty
- Feeling his onions
- Got his nose wet
- Got his snowsuit on and headed North
- Got the gravel rash (the highest form of intoxication, according to 1884’s The Slang Dictionary or the Vulgar Words, Street Phrases, and ‘Fast’ Expressions of High and Low Society)
- Hardwankered (seems counterintuitive)
- Has been paid
- Holding up the wall
- Just south of bejesus
- Killed his day (that’s a sobering assessment)
- Like Christmas
- Mary Queen of Scots
- Merle Haggard
- May he rest easy
- Mops and brooms
- Nailed to the floor
- N’awlins-ed up
- Nicely irrigated with horizontal lubricant
- Off me pickle
- Off the leash
- Off your tits (there are multiple references to tits in this list)
- On a bus
- Paris Hilton in a car (needs zero explanation)
- Really (maybe because this is the only response to whatever horrendous state you find your friend in after they’ve called you to come rescue them from themselves)
- Screwed to the carpet
- Seeing by twos
- Sober impaired
- Sotally tober (we’ve all made that switch)
- Steamboats (of Scottish origin. The Dictionary of the Scots Language says, “A picturesque if somewhat inexplicable word for drunk”)
- Studying snakes
- Talking to Ralph on the big white phone
- Tile counting
- Too far north
- T.U.B.B. (this term was reported to Dickson by a Dr. C.W. Sande, who overheard it from his paramedics in 1983. Decoded, it stands for “tits up, but breathing”)
- Up a tree
- Useless (a good friend and former coworker of mine once told me that back when he was first working in bars as a barback, he had a few too many, and this is exactly what the bartender he was working with called him)
- Written off
- Zorba’d (in use since at least the late ’90s. Dickson reports that Antonio Lillo, a senior lecturer in phonetics, phonology and sociolinguistics at the University of Alicante, said, “I first heard it in Edinburgh in 1998: ‘You shut up. You’re fucking Zorba’d.’” Derives from Zorba the Greek [rhymes with “leak,” meaning drunk])
Enjoy, you lushes. Just remember never to tell your bartender you’re any of these. Because then I can’t serve you anymore.