The Language of Drunkenness | Science | Smithsonian

The Language of Drunkenness

How often do you get drunk? Intoxicated? Inebriated? Tanked? Hammered? Wasted? Plastered? Sloshed? Tipsy? Buzzed?Does your answer change depending on the word I use? And if I asked you to define each term, would your definitions be the same as mine?In daily life, these nuances of language don’t rea...

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A beer tasting, courtesy of Flickr user Ben Harris-Roxas




How often do you get drunk? Intoxicated? Inebriated? Tanked? Hammered? Wasted? Plastered? Sloshed? Tipsy? Buzzed?



Does your answer change depending on the word I use? And if I asked you to define each term, would your definitions be the same as mine?



In daily life, these nuances of language don’t really matter, but researchers who study self-reported intoxication may have a problem. These are people who ask questions like “How often in the past 30 days did you drink enough to get ‘drunk’?” and expect their study subjects' answers to mean something reliable.



A University of Missouri graduate student, Ash Levitt, conducted two surveys of university undergraduates and demonstrated the language conundrum (his results appear in the Early View section of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research). He asked participants about their use of various words related to intoxication.



The students defined “drunk” as being somewhere in the moderate to heavy range of inebriation. Among women, “tipsy” meant consuming about four drinks over two hours, which is binge-drinking level, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism National Advisory Council. The guys were more straightforward in their language; higher levels of drinking among them were more often called “hammered” or “wasted.”



Of course, we are talking about college students. I wonder if you would get similar results if you did the same surveys among older adults, or if one day adults simply get less creative with intoxication-related language and just admit they got drunk?
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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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