Binge drinking: a brief history

I love etymology. To binge, the Oxford English Dictionary reveals, was originally a Lincolnshire (and, it implies, East Midlands generally) dialect word meaning “to soak (a wooden vessel)”.

The metaphorical extension of meaning from soaking wood to soaking yourself was an easy journey, and by 1854 a book called A Glossary of Northamptonshire Words had recorded this figurative use for the word: “A man goes to the alehouse to get a good binge, or to binge himself.”

A dictionary of slang published in 1889 said of “binge” that it was used at Oxford to mean “a big drinking bout”. By the early 20th century the word was being used for parties at which large amounts of drink were consumed, with no particular sense that there was anything to criticise: the OED has a quote from 1922: “This is only a binge . . . just a jolly old bachelor-party.”

The word also took on secondary meanings, “to encourage”, and “to liven up”, as in a quote from the children’s novel National Velvet, published in 1935: “The information having been looked over and binged up here and toned down there . . . Reuter sent round the world the following message . . .”

It was probably from this sense of “livened up” that General (later Field Marshal Lord) Montgomery used to ask his officers in the Second World War: “Are you 100 per cent full of binge?”, according to The Times in 1942. Monty meant, apparently, were they full of spirit – zing – and confidence in their own ability and fitness, rather than whisky-ed up to the hairline. It was not a use that caught on.

Binge drinking” and “binge drinker” as phrases are comparatively modern, and come a while after the invention of the concept of “binge eating” by psychiatrists to describe problems such as bulimia. “Eating binge” occurs in the 1930s: the OED first finds “binge eating” used in the Psychiatric Quarterly in 1959.

The Times first prints the expression “binge drinker” in 1969, in an article about alcoholics headlined: “Call to help men who drink 30 pints a day”. The piece contrasts steady “heavy” drinkers, who “might not recognise themselves as alcoholics” when they heard the “dramatic stories of the “binge drinkers”. A “binge drinker” as used by psychiatrists was someone who “goes off periodically and gets himself very drunk, perhaps for days on end, but between bouts he may drink little or nothing, and so can argue that he is not addicted.”

The idea of “binge drinking” as episodic heavy drinking continued through into the 1980s and the early 1990s. In 1988, for example, Douglas Hurd, then Home Secretary, “called for action against crime by ‘binge drinkers, drunken drivers and people who down 12 pints and get into fights’.” Presumably the writer did not mean the binge drinkers should be taking the action against crime . . . anyway, the same year, Jancis Robinson, in her book The Demon Drink, sub-titled “For the first time objective assessment of alcohol from someone who loves it”, was able to say:

Because much less guilt attaches to social drinking in this country than in, say, Sweden, binge drinking is far less common (although it is notable that the more Nordic the area in Britain, the more prevalent it is).”

Even in 1992 a report in The Times could write

Four out of ten 18-to-24 year-olds drink more than the “safe” limits (21 units a week for men and 14 units for women), a higher proportion than any other age group. This is mostly social rather than binge drinking [my emphasis]. Young people are the most socially active segment of the community and much social life, especially in colleges and universities, revolves around pubs, clubs and bars

By the early 1990s, however, when the idea of recommended weekly limits on alcohol drinking was gaining wider use, “binge drinking” began to be specifically defined by alcohol researchers as “drinking over half the recommended units for one week in a single session” – a definition, of course, with no known rationale or evidence to back it up.

Then in 1995 the Government report Sensible Drinking pushed successfully for moving away from recommended weekly limits to recommended daily limits, and “binge drinking” was redefined again, as drinking twice the recommended daily limit in a single session: again with little real rationale for this change in definition that cut the amount of alcohol in a “binge” by almost a quarter.

Since “twice the recommended daily limit” could be as low as three or three and a half pints of beer for men and two and a half medium-sized glasses of wine for women, this suddenly put an awful lot of ordinary people’s ordinary nights out into the “binge” category.

Right now this Government, which must be the most nannying we have ever had (don’t you wish to give Dawn Primarolo, the “public health minister”, a slap? It’s people like her, rather than Gordon Brown, who have turned voters off the Labour Party) is running an advertising campaign meant to make us fearful of just how many “units” are in every glass we drink.

But what you won’t read is that the Office for National Statistics said in January this year that average alcohol consumption in the UK is already down 15 per cent from 2000, and men’s average consumption is now 18.7 units per week, below the 21 units a week guideline, while women’s consumption is nine units per week, well below their 14 units guideline.

Only a small minority of the population, 18 per cent, ever “binge drink” even under the ludicrous Government definitions and 82 per cent don’t. That’s better than in 2003, when 23 per cent were officially “binge drinkers” – a 22 per cent drop in “binge drinking” in three years.

Now parents are to be “given advice about how much alcohol their children can safely drink” – more nannying nonsense. Most parents are perfectly able to educate their children, and those that can’t aren’t going to be influenced by advice from a man called Ed Balls: “I’m sorry, darling, I would pop out and buy you a bottle of Smirnoff from the supermarket, but the Children’s Minister has just personally popped a leaflet through the letterbox saying that as you’re only 14 I shouldn’t.”

And in another classic example of how to spin statistics in the drinks debate, the Guardian today reports that “the Liberal Democrats disclosed [sic] that 23,000 children under the age of 14 have been admitted to hospital due to alcohol in the last eight years.” Alarming? Well, any drunken under-14 is bad, obviously, but that works out at the average A&E unit seeing a blotto child aged 13 or less only once every six weeks. That’s rather fewer than the number of children injured while cycling every year. Around 60 children a year are killed in bicycling accidents. Will we see Ed Balls banning bicycles for the under-14s?

6 thoughts on “Binge drinking: a brief history”

  1. What does Jancis mean by “the more Nordic” parts of Britain?

    Is she suggesting they binge more up North because of the miserable weather or because they’re all descended from Vikings?

    Do people binge more up North?

  2. I think by “the more Nordic parts” she’s talking mountains, higher latitudes and a tendency to drink spirits . . . I have no hard evidence to hand about comparative drinking levels in the flat south versus the mountainous north, but the only place I’ve ever seen the staff and contents of an off-licence protected by a wire grill was in Glasgow …

  3. Interesting etymology of binge drinking. I think there should be a campaign remove the negative spin from the fine tradition of drunken merriment.

  4. I thought this was history but turned out to be a complain about national drinking limits… No evidence? Man! there’s a ton of evidence to support those limits.
    People could make better decision towards alcohol of they have clear boundries. Maybe you just don’t wanna see the fact that you drink like a whale and find it hard to accept an advice to cut down on your drinking.
    To some parents is not easy to offer the right guidance, so it’s important to make parenting materials about relevant topics.
    Please, stop writing about things you clearly and totally ignore.

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