Can any English word be turned into a synonym for “drunk”? Not all, but many can.

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The lads from Edgar Wright's 2013 sci-fi comedy <i>World's End</i> know when to start drinking and get "totally and utterly carparked."

The lads from Edgar Wright’s 2013 sci-fi comedy World’s End know when to start drinking and get “totally and utterly carparked.”

Universal Pictures

British comedian Michael McIntyre has a standard bit in his standup routines concerning the many (many!) slang terms posh British people use to describe being drunk. These include “wellied,” “trousered,” and “ratarsed,” to name a few. McIntyre’s bit rests on his assertion that pretty much any English word can be modified into a so-called “drunkonym,” bolstered by a few handy examples: “I was utterly gazeboed,” or “I am going to get totally and utterly carparked.”

It’s a clever riff that sparked the interest of two German linguists. Christina Sanchez-Stockhammer of Chemnitz University of Technology and Peter Uhrig of FAU Erlangen-Nuremberg decided to draw on their expertise to test McIntyre’s claim that any word in the English language could be modified to mean “being in a state of high inebriation.” Given their prevalence, “It is highly surprising that drunkonyms are still under-researched from a linguistic perspective,” the authors wrote in their new paper published in the Yearbook of the German Cognitive Linguistics Association. Bonus: the authors included an extensive appendix of 546 English synonyms for “drunk,” drawn from various sources, which makes for entertaining reading.

There is a long tradition of coming up with colorful expressions for drunkenness in the English language, with the Oxford English Dictionary listing a usage as early as 1382: “merry,” meaning “boisterous or cheerful due to alcohol; slight drunk, tipsy.” Another OED entry from 1630 lists “blinde” (as in blind drunk) as a drunkonym. Even Benjamin Franklin got into the act with his 1737 Drinker’s Dictionary, listing 288 words and phrases for denoting drunkenness. By 1975, there were more than 353 synonyms for “drunk” listed in that year’s edition of the Dictionary of American Slang. By 1981, linguist Harry Levine noted 900 terms used as drunkonyms.

So the sheer number of drunkonyms has been increasing, with BBC culture reporter Susie Dent estimating in 2017 that there are some 3,000 English slang synonyms for being drunk, including “ramsquaddled,” “obfusticated,” “tight as a tick,” and my personal favorite, “been too free with Sir Richard.” Sanchez-Stockhammer and Uhrig offer a few caveats, noting that the latter number is likely inflated (much like the number of words for “snow” in Eskimo languages). Also, most drunkonyms are not frequently used and tend to fall out of use quickly rather than taking root in the broader cultural consciousness.

For their study, Sanchez-Stockhammer and Uhrig scoured various sources to compile their own working list of drunkonyms, excluding any with “drunk” as a base (e.g., “martin-drunk”) and using Excel to delete any repeated terms. They ended up with the 546 drunkonyms listed in their appendix.

Surprisingly, there were Urban Dictionary entries for McIntyre’s terms “gazeboed” (2008), and “carparked,” and “pyjama-ed” (2009). McIntyre first recorded this particular bit in October 2009 for a DVD, suggesting that “these terms were already in use either shortly before or around the time of McIntyre’s tour”—perhaps inspired by the comedian’s earlier standup performances as he worked out the material before producing a DVD for posterity. That said, the October 2009 audience responded with a lot of laughter and applause, so the drunkonyms were at least unfamiliar to many in attendance that night.

“If McInyre’s hypothesis were right that any English word can be used to mean ‘drunk,’ it would be necessary to ensure the listeners’ understanding of the innovative use of the word either through contextual clues or other linguistic means,” the authors wrote. They found that the basic structure of McIntyre’s drunkonyms is common enough—namely, combining “be” or “get” with an intensifying adverb (“totally”) and a random word ending in “-ed.” However, that alone doesn’t sufficiently explain the ease with which people grasp the meaning of the new usages.

Sanchez-Stockhammer and Uhrig suggest there is an additional cultural element at play. By the time English native speakers reach adulthood, they’ve simply been exposed to so many drunkonyms that they can easily guess the new meaning based on context—and like any good professional comedian, McIntyre makes sure to prime his audience.

“We can say that the wide range of words observed in the already existing lists of drunkonyms seems to support the view that there is a large number of words that one could potentially use to creatively express drunkenness in English,” the authors concluded. That said, “There is ample potential for future studies into the question… as our productive constructions only apply to less than half of all drunkonyms” collected in their appendix.

We look forward to future insights into the structural forms of “blotto,” “slug-nutty,” or “stocious.”

Yearbook of the German Cognitive Linguistics Association, 2024. DOI: 10.1515/gcla-2023-0007  (About DOIs).

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