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."
Heavy drinking interventions work best, researchers have found, when individual feedback is personalized and gender specific, he says.
"Our findings can help clinicians improve these interventions by helping them understand which terms men and women use differently," he says.
"We're not saying objective measures aren't important," Levitt tells WebMD. "We're saying the terms can be used as a supplement to objective measures."
Women might describe themselves as "tipsy" or "loopy" when they're really at least as "hammered" as men, Levitt says. And if they think of themselves as merely tipsy, he adds, they might be more likely to get in a car and drive.
Words to describe states of inebriation have been evolving for centuries, Levitt notes in the study, The Language of Intoxication: Preliminary Investigations, to be published soon in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
He cites one 1981 analysis that corroborated the notion that there are more synonyms for "drunk" than for any other word in the English language. Many terms go out of fashion, such as "bagged," which 25 years ago meant the same as today's "hammered."
Among the conclusions: "There is a distinct need for supplementary measures of the subjective effects of alcohol, regardless of why the individual differences exist. Additionally supplemental measures could have important implications for future research, particularly in examining problematic drinking outcomes."