The language of intoxication: The term 'drunk' doesn't really cut it any more

December 15, 2008

The language that drinkers typically use to describe alcohol's effects on them are quite different from the language used by alcohol researchers, no doubt limiting researchers' understanding of self-reported alcohol use. New findings show that researchers could do well to tap into a wide spectrum of terms used by drinkers to describe their levels of intoxication; also, these tend to differ by gender.

Results will be published in the March issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research and are currently available at Early View.

"There is tremendous variation in what effect a specific dose of alcohol will have in different individuals and in the same person on different occasions," explained Ash Levitt, a graduate student in the department of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri, as well as corresponding author for the study.

"As social and cultural animals, humans have developed a rich and diverse vocabulary of intoxication-related slang to describe the subjective states they are experiencing while drinking," said Levitt. "However, alcohol researchers have largely ignored the language of intoxication." Instead, he added, researchers often rely on objective measures which, although critical to alcohol research, do not reflect individual subjective differences in drinking experiences.

Moreover, most studies in self-report research that do use subjective assessments, he said, rely on single-item subjective assessments of intoxication. For example, "How often in the past 30 days did you drink enough to get 'drunk?" or "On a 1-100 scale, how 'drunk' do you feel right now?" Even though "drunk" is the oldest English-language intoxication-related synonym currently used today, Levitt noted, individuals do not perceive "drunk" in the same way, and just because something is commonly used does not mean that there aren't better alternatives.

Researchers used a web-based approach to survey two different samples, n=290 (140 males, 150 females) and n=146 (73 males, 72 females), of university undergraduates who ranged in age from 17 to 24 years. Each participant was asked about their familiarity and usage of a number of intoxication-related words.

"We found that intoxication-related terms reflected either moderate or heavy levels of intoxication, and that 'drunk' reflected a level of intoxication somewhere between moderate and heavy," said Levitt. "Men tended to use heavy-intoxication words more than women, which were also relatively more forceful in their tone, such as 'hammered.' Women tended to use moderate intoxication words more than men, which were also relatively more euphemistic, such as 'tipsy.' This is similar to other gender differences in slang usage, for example, men 'sweat' and women 'glow.'"

Women's use of intoxication terms could have important public health and methodological implications, said Levitt.

"Their use of 'tipsy' reflected an average of four drinks over two hours, which actually meets binge-drinking criteria for women but not men," he said. "Therefore, women could be binge drinking while psychologically perceiving their level of intoxication as being 'tipsy' or relatively benign, as opposed to heavier levels of intoxication that would be described with less euphemistic terms, such as 'hammered' or 'wasted.' Such a perception could potentially mislead women, for example, to feel as though they are capable of driving after drinking because they are 'only tipsy.'"

Levitt added that these findings also have implications for clinicians. "Discrepancies between objective and subjective effects can help the clinician assess tolerance and sensitivity," he said. "They could also aid in the development of gender-sensitive interventions. Previous research has shown that heavy-drinking interventions work best when individual feedback is not only personalized, but also gender-specific. Our findings can help clinicians improve these interventions by helping them understand which terms men and women differentially use."
-end-
Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research (ACER) is the official journal of the Research Society on Alcoholism and the International Society for Biomedical Research on Alcoholism. Co-authors of the ACER paper, "The Language of Intoxication: Preliminary Investigations," were Kenneth J. Sher and Bruce D. Bartholow of the University of Missouri and the Midwest Alcoholism Research Center. The study was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research

Related Alcohol Articles from Brightsurf:

Alcohol use changed right after COVID-19 lockdown
One in four adults reported a change in alcohol use almost immediately after stay-at-home orders were issued: 14% reported drinking more alcohol and reported higher levels of stress and anxiety than those who did not drink and those whose use stayed the same.

Changes in hospitalizations for alcohol use disorder in US
Changes over nearly two decades in the rate of hospitalizations and in-hospital deaths from alcohol use disorder in the US were examined in this study.

Associations of alcohol consumption, alcohol-induced passing out with risk of dementia
The risk of future dementia associated with overall alcohol consumption and alcohol-induced loss of consciousness in a population of current drinkers was examined in this observational study with more than 131,000 adults.

New alcohol genes uncovered
Do you have what is known as problematic alcohol use?

Does estrogen influence alcohol use disorder?
A new study from researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago shows that high estrogen levels may make alcohol more rewarding to female mice.

Sobering new data on drinking and driving: 15% of US alcohol-related motor vehicle fatalities involve alcohol under the legal limit
A new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, published by Elsevier, found that motor vehicle crashes involving drivers with blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) below the legal limit of 0.08 percent accounted for 15% of alcohol-involved crash deaths in the United States.

Alcohol-induced deaths in US
National vital statistics data from 2000 to 2016 were used to examine how rates of alcohol-induced deaths (defined as those deaths due to alcohol consumption that could be avoided if alcohol weren't involved) have changed in the US and to compare the results by demographic groups including sex, race/ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status and geographic location.

Cuts in alcohol duty linked to 2000 more alcohol-related deaths in England
Government cuts to alcohol taxes have had dramatic consequences for public health, including nearly 2000 more alcohol-related deaths in England since 2012, according to new research from the University of Sheffield's School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR).

Integrated stepped alcohol treatment for people in HIV care improves both HIV & alcohol outcomes
Increasing the intensity of treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD) over time improves alcohol-related outcomes among people with HIV, according to new clinical research supported by the National Institutes of Health.

The Lancet:Targets to reduce harmful alcohol use are likely to be missed as global alcohol intake increases
Increasing rates of alcohol use suggest that the world is not on track to achieve targets against harmful alcohol use, according to a study of 189 countries' alcohol intake between 1990-2017 and estimated intake up to 2030, published in The Lancet.

Read More: Alcohol News and Alcohol Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.