Origins of common drinking phrases

World Best Bar

Apr 25, 2018

common drinking phrases
Any serial drink-and-dialler will know that heartfelt messages to potential lovers may read like a Shakespearean sonnet when it’s tapped at 3:00am after a night on the town, but in the cold light of day, the sweet nothings usually read more like ‘Up? If this sounds familiar, then it might surprise you to hear that some booze-related phrases have survived not only the harsh criticisms of the ‘morning after’, but also centuries and centuries of scrutiny. Wanna know how they came about? ’Course you do! Read on, amigos...


We’ve all felt the effects of indulging in one too many shandies, but did you know that there was no definitive way to describe a morning spent in existential dread with your head down a chamber pot until 1894? The horror! The original use of the phrase ‘hangover’ described ‘a survival, a thing left over from before’. In this case, the ‘thing’ was alcohol, ‘hanging over’ from the night before… and, in many cases, on your favourite top, too.


On the Wagon

Declaring that you know the etymology of this particular idiom will cause quite a stir within some circles (of linguistic historians, anyway). See, the thing is, we don’t actually know where it came from… but here are our three favourite working theories.

  1. Back in the days of Old Britannia when the gallows was still a socially acceptable punishment, prisoners would be permitted one last bevvy before being carted off in a wagon to meet their maker (so to speak).
  2. It’s an homage to the work of the Salvation Army who would sweep the streets of New York picking up drunks (in a wagon) to guide them on the path to sobriety.
  3. Its origin is the British phrase ‘on the water cart’. The water cart was a wagon that would be dragged down dirt roads in rural towns, spraying water to keep the dust down and the air If someone said, ‘I’m sticking to the water cart’, it meant that they would only drink water thereafter. This declaration slowly morphed into either being on the wagon or falling off it, the latter being someone who had tried to abstain, but fell back into boozing.


Hair of the Dog

If you’re trying to blame your savage hangover on canine-related allergies, you’re barking up the wrong tree. John Heywood’s 1546 text describes needing the ‘hair of the dog that bit you’ to cure those who had been attacked by a rabid pup. The treatment involved finding the vicious creature again, cutting off a bit of its manky fur and dressing your wound with it. Needless to say, many people became sicker following this method, and most died. Thanks, John.

However, in the world of hangovers, the dog refers to your poison of choice from the night before and how you need a drink of it to lift your spirits back up. Although chasing a frothing puppy through the streets might actually seem more preferable than enduring a particularly nasty hangover, it should be noted that medical professionals would likely advise against this treatment. OK, fine… we won’t have champagne for breakfast!


Happy Hour

Happy Hour is perfect for ‘spending time with spouse, soused,’ as Brian Flanagan declared in the epic ’80s cheese-fest movie Cocktail. The term, however, was around long before the cocky, young bartender broke millions of hearts while shaking up his lascivious libations. In the 1920s, the American Navy introduced a fair amount of slang into the common vernacular. This phrase referred to the period of time during which sailors would distract themselves from the boredom of living at sea, meaning anything from wrestling to boxing matches. Nowadays, it’s morphed into the allotted time when you can get drunk twice as fast for half the price. All together now: ♬ ‘In the Navy’ ♬.


Three Sheets to the Wind

Getting behind the wheel of any vehicle when you’ve had a drink is ridiculously irresponsible… but a sailboat? That would be a special kind of stupid. Thankfully, the origin of this phrase isn’t about drunken sailors (or what to do with one). It’s actually about Dutch windmills. Back in the day, windmill blades were more like frames and didn’t move much; when a farmer wanted to use a little wind power to grind his grain, he would attach four sheets to the blades so that the wind would propel them. However, if the blades started spinning before all the sheets were attached, then the windmill would be lopsided. This would, in turn, cause the entire mill to sway back and forth – not unlike a drunk person.


Hopefully, this’ll inspire you to come up your own jargon for alcohol-related shenanigans. Just make sure you give it a once-over sans beer goggles before you spread the word (literally and figuratively!).


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