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What we can learn from drunks this Christmas

The bus drunk

You will undoubtedly notice that drunken speech is similar to sober speech, with a few small differences. First, in the mouths of the inebriated, words often get completely mixed up, like gin and tonic. Take the public transport drunk, for example. They may feel they are carefully pouring out their favourite sentence: ‘I absolutely love you’. But by the time it splashes into your ear, it’s more of a slurred: ‘love… love, I absolutely… you I do.’ You may have heard your own versions but, rest-assured, your never-before-seen bus-buddy is expressing their utter adoration for you.

On other occasions, drunks do manage to get the words out in the right order… unfortunately, they forget to leave any discernible gaps between them. So, an enquiry about the frequency of your public transport usage may come out something like: ‘yougetonthebuseverydayandthat?’. In this case, all your new friend is doing is slamming words together, in the same way that they may slam their body against yours on the tiny seat.

Of course, it’s easy to make fun of the sozzled sentences of those who have fully immersed themselves in the Christmas spirit. 

 Where words come from

Where words come from

But actually, people have been mixing, twisting, misspelling, confusing and ‘borrowing’ words for millennia. Speaking of which, while the word millennia may ‘belong’ to us now, its root is the Latin mille (‘thousand’; out of which crawled our millipede). In fact, if Latin was a library, half its books would be in England. Latin provides us with many roots, as well as terms we’ve adopted wholesale: alibi (elsewhere), ad hoc (to this), impromptu (in readiness), semi (half), status quo (old rockers… sorry, it actually translates as ‘the state in which’), versus (against), vice versa (in turned position). I could go on ad infinitum (whoops, there’s another one, from which we have infinity).

We have similar long-term loan arrangements for other words from around the world, like pyjamas (from Persia), kindergarten (Germany), café (France), democracy (Greece) and fiesta (Spain), to name a few. Had we not accepted these lexical immigrants to settle on our shores, we would not even have the word immigrate (Latin). In other words, our vocabulary (more Latin) would be infinitely poorer (ditto, which itself stems from the Latin dictus - said).


Words up mixing!

Words up mixing!

We are all guilty of mixing words up occasionally or choosing a perfectly good word and using it completely incorrectly, which is known as catachresis. Militate and mitigate are easy to mix up. As are averse and adverse. Misused often enough, words can even change their meaning. For example, enormity traditionally meant the scale of something terrible, like the results of war. But, because it’s been misused so often, it’s coming to be a synonym for a large number. If you look at the word egregious in the Oxford English Dictionary, it will tell you that it means outstandingly bad. But at one time it meant the complete opposite: outstandingly good. This reversal probably came about by people confusing it or using it ironically.  


Like our drunken bus friends, we have all been pushing words together for a very long time. You probably already know that breakfast was once two separate words that explain the ending of our nightly period of starvation. Less well-known is that asparagus started its life as sparrow grass. 

It seems that, if words are used together often enough, and enough of us think they are a good fit, they become an acceptable item, known as a closed compound. This is the case for bookstore, notebook, superman and waistcoat, all of which were once two separate words. It is highly unlikely that drunks on buses were solely responsible for so many orthographical marriages. Which means we must point the finger at sober society for making the alterations that suited their own purposes.

We continue to treat words like ingredients for our own individual recipes. We chop them up, distil them down to abbreviations and we squeeze them together to form new concoctions that suit our own tongues. If we find something a bit of a mouthful, we make it more palatable by adjusting it. 400 years ago, the first letter of knee and knight was pronounced, so we had something like ca-nee and ca-nite. Formally, this piece of writing is a web log, though the vast majority will know it as a blog. Having pushed can and not together to form cannot, we then reduced it further to produce can’t. And seriously, when was the last time you saw an uncut et cetera?

"It seems that, if words are used together often enough, and enough of us think they are a good fit, they become an acceptable item, known as a closed compound. "

Repetition. Repetition…

Many will undoubtedly feel they know better than those drunks who have a habit of repeating themselves: ‘I love you, I do, I absolutely f***ing love, love, love you.’ But, before blaming drunks’ habit of repetition on too many sherries, consider how often sober people repeat themselves. All of the following commonly used phrases say exactly the same thing twice: law and order, assault and battery, peace and quiet, pots and pans, intents and purposes, filthy dirty… I recently heard someone utter one of my favourite childhood phrases: tiny little.

So, if during the festive period, you happen to sit next to someone whose intoxicated gabbling seems slurred and muddled, listen carefully: you might just learn something.

Merry (German) Christ’s mass (Hebrew and Latin)