Saturday, February 22, 2020

Some alcohol word and expression origins . . .


Yesterday I mentioned newts in some Funny Friday items. 

Coincidentally, whilst considering what to post, I came across an item prepared some time ago about the origin of the expression “pissed as a newt”, which I had then overlooked posting.

It also looked at the origin of some other expressions meaning intoxicated. 

Here is the first instalment.

Kate happened to ask me how the expression “as pissed as a newt”, which was used in program we were watching, had originated. I said that I had no clue, but it started me wondering from whence similar expressions – drunk as a lord, drunk as a skunk, full as a boot, full as a goog – had come. So here, dear Kate and readers, is a guide . . . 

Pissed as a newt: 

A newt is a salamander and is semiaquatic, alternating between aquatic and terrestrial habitats. 

Oops, wrong Newt, that's Newt Gringrich, former US Speaker of the House

Various origins of the expression "pissed as a newt" have been offered: 


That the US Government banned the sale of alcohol to Ute native Americans, the “newt” resulting from a mishearing of the word. (Sounds like BS to me.) 


That during a banquet King Henry VIII inquired as to what one young reveller had been drinking. His apologetic father asked that Henry forgive him, saying “Sire, he is but a youth and as for wine he is new to it!' This became an expression, pissed as new to it, which developed into pissed as a newt. 


In early England, brewers often added meat to the brewing process, which included small animals. Newts, being both terrestrial and aquatic, could survive longer than other animals and would ingest some of the liquid being brewed, giving rise to the expression. (Yechh!!) 


That Abraham Newton (1631-1698) of Grantham, the presumed author of the first known treatise on the medicinal properties of the beer of Burton-upon-Trent (now unfortunately lost), was such a well-known tippler that, in his lifetime, even Londoners would use the expression "Pissed as Abe Newton." 


That the original expression was “tight as a newt” from the fact, apparently, that the salamander has a tight skin (??) The expression “tight” originally referred to drunkenness. 


That it originated in the Victorian era, when professional mourners were called newts, and would therefore have been expected to drown their impersonal sorrows with alcohol. (There is no authority that professional mourners were called newts). 


That it comes from being too drunk to walk straight, by reference to the natural wobbling gait of a newt. 


In Nelson's time Royal Navy junior ensign's were known as "newts." Being so young it didn't take much rum to become inebriated. Hence the expression "pissed as a newt." 


Take your pick, but be aware that The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first written use of the expression as being in 1957: 

1957 “Christ, I'm pissed. I'm pissed as a newt.”
— World of Suzie Wong, by R.Mason, II. i. page 111 

Usually written usage is a guide to the period when the word was in use, so many of the explanations as to historical usage may be incorrect. 

Final thought, the expression appears in the musical Les Miserables. Remember Thenardier’s Master of the House number? 

Original illustration of Monsieur and Madame Thenardier

This is the introduction to Master of the House:

My band of soaks, my den of dissolutes 
My dirty jokes, my always pissed as newts 
My sons of whores (no, no, no, no, not tonight) 
Spend their lives in my inn 
Homing pigeons homing in 
They fly through my doors 
And they crawl out on all fours 



So how has the expression “pissed” come to mean intoxicated? 

Firstly, one should distinguish between the American usage of the term and the UK/Australian use. 

"Pissed" in American-speak commonly means annoyed and angry, much as in Oz we use that term as “pissed off”. In the UK and Australia, it means drunk. Someone saying “He’s totally pissed” would have different meanings if used about someone in America and Australia. 

How did that originate? There is no clear answer but note the following: 


“Piss” as a verb dates from the late 13th century, coming from the 12th century Old French “pissier” meaning “urinate", this coming from Vulgar Latin *pissiare”.  

“He shall not piss my money against the wall; he shall not have my money to spend in liquor. 
[Grose, "Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue," 3rd edition, 1796] 

He who once a good name gets, 
May piss a bed, and say he sweats. 
["Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit and Pickpocket Eloquence," London, 1811] 


“Piss” as a noun comes from the late 14th century, from the above verb. 


My guess is that the resemblance of urine to beer, and the fact that that it causes the need to urinate, explain its usage for intoxication. 

Pissed as a fart: 

Origin unknown, perhaps referable to the loss of bodily functions when inebriated.

Mike Carlton was suspended from 2GB for saying on air that he was “Pissed as a fart”.

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