As a lesson in semantics, I once quizzed my advanced students at Cuba High School, decades ago, on all the synonyms one can find for whatever right-minded people think of as objectionable.
What about the word “drunk”? How many words did my honors students conjure up for the condition indicating one is “three sheets to the wind”? But by using even that expression, well, that shows how my heritage antedated Columbus.
Going through some medieval notes I’d somehow kept from my teaching days at Cuba in the late-60s, I came across no fewer than 25 terms the students provided. Here are some of them: blitzed, blotto, bombed, buzzed, crocked, gay (yes, gay!), hammered, inebriated, intoxicated, loaded, looped, pickled, pie-eyed, plastered, plowed, polluted, potted, sauced, sloshed, smashed, soused, stewed, stoned, tanked, tight, tipsy, trashed and wasted.
I even heard an unusual expression, thanks to my son Stan: “stew in one’s own crapulence.” Naturally, I surmised a scatological tone, until Stan explained that, having heard it on the Simpsons, he too was curious and looked it up. One’s “crapulence” has to do with drinking, not the other thing. But back to my classroom.
The lesson most of us picked up was that the human animal likes to come up with dozens of euphemisms for “drunk.” I suppose it’s easier to rationalize away our condition of being three times over the presumed level of intoxication by saying, “I wasn’t really drunk, I was tipsy.”
Granted, there are subtle gradations. To me, “buzzed” indicates being on the way to intoxication. And a lot of the terms imply barrels of fun. Nobody minds being bothered by a “buzzed” person, and nobody likes hanging with someone who’s plastered.
Later in the Cuba class, we turned the question around: how many words can you think of for “sober”? Now that was a lot tougher, “sober” meaning the opposite of “drunk.” Many people overlook the fact that sober also denotes serious, sullen, which leads us to wonder whether a loaded person who’s not swinging from the chandeliers can also be sober.
In Cuba, we came up with no real synonyms for sober. This week, I needed to check the online program, Thesaurus.com, to provide the following list: abstemious, abstinent, ascetic, calm, continent, controlled, dry, moderate, non-indulgent, on the wagon, restrained, sedate, self-possessed, serious, steady and temperate.
Fine, but almost all of them deal with a condition that has nothing necessarily to do with booze. Non-indulgent can refer to food; calm relates also to nerves, controlled refers to mood, dry refers to weather. To ask a person if he’s “on the wagon” is like asking if he still beats his wife. True, one who drinks or has drank/drunk a lot may be on or off the wagon, but to a non-drinker, the expression is unanswerable.
We can’t go a day without hearing citizens decrying the amount of damage and injury caused by drunk drivers behind the wheel. If it refers to someone else, we use the word drunk, but when it points to us, we head for the nearest euphemism.
I noticed the tendency to avoid using “drunk” in my son Ben, who recently used the expression, “I’ve drank a gallon of water today.” Did he mean to say “drank” with the past participle? When we use “have” in such a sentence, the term ought to be “have drunk” not “have drank.”
Well, Ben certainly knows the difference with this irregular verb, but, he explained, “‘Drunk,’ no matter how it’s used, makes me think of someone stumbling, slurring his words, reeking of liquor and repeating, ‘I love you, Bro’ to all and sundry.”
A website that addresses grammar questions says, “Even professional writers can become intoxicated with this misuse.” It adds that speakers and writers instinctively avoid “drunk” because it often denotes inebriation.
So, even though “drunk” is OK even when one talks about consuming any liquid, even something as innocuous as Ovaltine, watch for “drank” to gain in frequency as “drunk” becomes more odious.
Several columns back, I wrote about people’s tendency to say “ice tea” when they mean “iced tea.” My reasoning was simply that the “t”-sound drowns out the “d” that should be in “ice.”
On that subject, Sara Harris, who doubtless has drank/drunk much tea, recently e-mailed the following: “I read your article in the Optic regarding iced tea. I found it interesting since yesterday I was at Walgreen’s and was looking at the gallon containers of the Arizona brand ‘iced tea.’ I thought at the time how often I say ‘ice tea’ when in reality it is, as you pointed out, ‘iced tea.’
“The discrepancy between written and oral language is always intriguing!”
I felt comfortable with the “iced tea” explanation until someone asked me, “What about ice coffee”? He said we seldom see “iced coffee” on the menu. Oh joy! Seems I’ll be spending the rest of my summer vacation puzzling over that question.