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The Language of Intoxication, Straight Up

To Describe Their Degree of Intoxication, Men Might Use Words Like ‘Hammered’ or ‘Wasted’, While Women Opt for ‘Tipsy’
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 17, 2008 -- If you've been drinking and think of yourself as "tipsy," chances are you're drunk as a skunk -- and female. If you're a man and just as inebriated, odds are you'll describe yourself as "hammered" or "wasted."

Researchers are finding that the language drinkers use to describe alcohol's effects on them vary by gender. And the words that drinkers use to describe themselves are quite different from the descriptive words used by experts who study alcohol and drinking.

Such are among the conclusions of University of Missouri researchers, who feel that words used by drinkers to describe themselves after quaffing may impede the understanding of the experts who're trying to get a handle on bingeing, and on the use of booze in general.

"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," says Ash Levitt, a University of Missouri graduate student in psychological sciences. "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. However, alcohol researchers have largely ignored the language of intoxication."

Alcohol researchers often rely on objective measures, which don't reflect subjective feelings or experiences, Levitt tells WebMD.

One problem is that people perceive the word "drunk" in many ways.

He and his colleagues studied 290 college students, ranging in age from 17 to 24. They later questioned another sample of 145 undergraduates. In both groups, most students described themselves as "moderate" drinkers.

"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," Levitt says. "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.'"

But their use of the word "tipsy" reflected an average of four drinks over two hours, which researchers say meets the definition of binge drinking for women but not for men.

When males in the study used words like "trashed" or "wasted," it reflected about eight drinks over two hours, Levitt tells WebMD.

"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." he says.

That could spell trouble, misleading women into feeling they are capable of driving after drinking because they think of themselves as merely "tipsy," he adds.

Such findings can help researchers and clinicians assess tolerance and sensitivity, Levitt says, and also aid in the "development of gender-sensitive interventions."

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