11 Origins of Common Drinking Phrases

There's a lot of slang associated with drinking. Three sheets to the wind. Hair of the dog. On the wagon. We all know them, we all use them, but most of us don't know where they came from or what they really mean. Read on, and you'll be the smartest person at the bar.

It's Friday afternoon, you've made it through the long week, and it's time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo's weekly booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science, and alcohol. "Wards, wards, wards." -Drunk Hamlet

Booze

As long as we're talking about booze, why not start with booze? The word first appeared in Middle Dutch, way back in the 1300s, as bûsen, which meant "to drink to excess." There was also the Old High German word bausen, which meant "to bulge or billow." These may have been born out of buise (Dutch), meaning a large drinking vessel. The word made its way over to Middle English in the 1500s as both a verb (to booze) and a noun (to drink some booze). It wasn't until the 1700s that it was spelled phonetically, as we do today.

Some people think the word derived from a Philadelphia distiller in the 1800s named E.G. Booz. These people are wrong, and now you can shame them. Try to be nice about it.

Hangover

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the first documented use of hangover (or hang-over) was in 1894, and it meant "a survival, a thing left over from before." That sounds about right. The alcohol (or alcohol sickness) hangs over from the night before. Get it?

Tie One On

This is an odd one, and the exact definition is the subject of some debate. There's some consensus, though, that the "one" being tied on refers to a bun. "Tie one on" is an abbreviated version of the British expression "tie a bun on." Indeed, for a hundred years or so before the 1970s, "a bun" was slang for getting drunk. The problem is that nobody knows how buns got into the equation in the first place.

The best theory going is that it was a part of an old school sobriety test. As in, "Walk while balancing this bun on your head to prove you're sober." If the person was really drunk, they'd have to "tie a bun on" in order to pass the test. Which, as far as sobriety tests go, sounds pretty hilarious.

Three Sheets to the Wind

There are two schools of thought on here. The more popular origin story is that it's a sailing term. The sheet isn't the sail itself (as sailors know), but rather it's the rope that controls the trim of the sail. If all three sheets (on a three-sail rig) are released and allowed to go slack, the sail will luff, meaning they'll flap about sloppily, the boat will lose speed, and hence control. Kinda like a drunk person.

"To the wind" doesn't make a ton of sense in this instance, but it seems that the saying may have evolved from "three sheets in the wind," which is better. And that confusion is pretty easily explained by the fact that it's drunk people saying it.

The second origin story makes a little more sense. This goes back to the days of Dutch windmills. The mills generally had four blades that were really just frames. They didn't catch much wind on their own, but when a miller wanted to grind grain he would put material over the frames of the blades, so that the wind would propel them. They could put sheets on two opposing blades (if the wind was strong) or on all four blades (if the wind was weaker) and have a nice balance. However, if the miller only got three sheets on before it started spinning, it would be lopsided. As the unbalanced blades spun it would cause the entire mill to sway back and forth, much like drunk person.

This explains why it's almost always "three sheets." That said, "two sheets" is the first known written appearance (1815).

Groggy

Didn't know that was a booze-specific word, didja? Grog was a drink the British navy consumed in the 1700s. Generally it was rum watered down with water or beer. Drink too much of it at night, and you wake up all tired and out of it, or groggy. It was, essentially, a synonym for hangover.

On the Wagon

This is an extremely contentious one. There's been an email circulating for the last few years that claims it has something to do with ye olde British prisoners being allowed one last drink before being carted off (in a wagon) to the gallows. This is completely bogus. The phrase is also frequently (and falsely) attributed to the work of the Salvation Army (which would round up New York City drunks on a wagon and bring them to "salvation"), but the written usage pre-dates that work. While the actual definition is still the subject of debate, the origin story with the most support is as follows.

The first written record of the phrase was in 1901 in Alice Caldwell Rice's Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch. Actually, it was the British variation of the phrase "on the water cart." The quote in question: "I wanted to git him some whisky, but he shuck his head. 'I'm on the water-cart," in a nod to the temperance movement.

The water cart was a wagon that was dragged down dirt roads in rural towns, spraying water, and thus keeping the dust down. Men to declared they were on the wagon ("wagon" was substituted for "cart"), promised that they were sticking to water from now on (or, possibly, that they vowed they would rather drink nasty horse-cart water than drink booze). When they "fell off the wagon" it meant they had slipped and gone back to their old boozin' ways.

Hair of the Dog

This one makes more sense in the context of the full version: "hair of the dog that bit you." It refers to drinking a bit of booze in the morning to relieve the withdrawal symptoms associated with a hangover. We've certainly seen weirder cures. First documented usage seems to be from John Heywood's 1546 text A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue:

I pray thee let me and my fellow have
A hair of the dog that bit us last night -
And bitten were we both to the brain aright.
We saw each other drunk in the good ale glass.

It's a nod to a practice that dates back to Medieval times, when a person bit by a rabid dog was advised to treat the wound by cutting off a piece of the dog's hair applying some of that dog's hair to the wound. Side note: A lot of people died of rabies.

Crunk

The youngest word on this list, crunk first arrived in the early-to-mid 1990s. Not surprisingly, there are several competing definitions. First, crunk may be used to describe a style of high-energy hip-hop music originating from the southern United States (particularly Atlanta and Memphis). It's got a distinctive club sound and usually has repeated (shouted) lyrics.

The other possible origin is that it's a portmanteau of the words "crazy" and "drunk." As with the music, it's typically associated with a high-energy form of drunk. Some associate drugs and booze being consumed at the same time (i.e. chronic and drunk, coked up and drunk, etc). First usage in pop culture seems to be Outkast in 1993 in their song "Player's Ball," though you'd be hard-pressed to derive a definition from its usage. Conan O'Brien also used it as a catch-all nonsense swearword on his show starting in 1993, but that's most likely a coincidence.

Hooch

Meaning a strong, cheap, and usually vile spirit, the word hooch can be traced back to Alaska. Following the U.S. purchase in 1867, American soldiers were dispatched to the area, and booze wasn't readily available. There was a native tribe up there called the Hoochinoo. While it's not exactly clear who taught what to whom, the Hoochinoo began distilling a sort of rum made primarily from molasses. It's said the still was an old five gallon oil can and the piping was a barrel of an old musket.

It was, as you might ahve guessed, extremely nasty, but also cheap and extremely potent. The Hoochinoos became famous for it, and the product became known among Americans as "hooch." The term came back into vogue amongst illegal distillers during prohibition in the 1920s and remains in circulation to this day.

Blotto

This Britishism first showed up in the early 1900s, and it's a fairly easy one to trace. It means "extremely drunk," typically to the point of blacking out. We know that blotto derives from the word blot, but there things get a little tricker, as blot has several definitions. Some think it's because to blot can mean "to soak up a liquid," which definitely makes sense, but there another definition that may be even more telling. You can erase something by "blotting it out," which is essentially what you're doing to your memory when you get blackout drunk.

Sh*t-Faced

Sadly, the origins of this one are murky. It seems clear that it began as a general insult, and wasn't necessarily associated with drinking. In fact it's possibly a play off of the Scottish expression "chit-faced," which has the same root as kit and kitten. It generally meant someone with a small face, as in a child or a young animal, and wasn't typically an insult.

The O.E.D. attributes the first instance of it being used to mean drunkenness to Alan Ginsburg in his 1961 book Empty Mirror (though, as Slate points out, that seems a bit late). There may be some basis for it though; it was around that time that it began gaining popularity among the college crowd.

Leathered to the Jimmys

Nah, just kidding. That one's not real. But it should be.


There are, of course, many dozens of others. If you have a favorite one, please help expand the list in the discussion below (don't forget to cite your sources). We'll see you next week for another Happy Hour, when we'll all get leathered to the jimmys.

[UPDATE: Leathered to the Jimmys is on its way to becoming a real thing! You can upvote it here at Urban Dictionary, and you can see it in action in this awesome 1-minute animated film made by reader Klas Holmlund. Team #leatheredtothejimmys]

[Oxford Journals, Online Etymology Dictionary, Random House, The Phrase Finder, NY Times, Brain Pickings, Random House, The Phrase Finder, Rap Basement, Culinary Lore, Oxford Dictionaries, Slate]


Image credit: Shutterstock/John Goldstein