Our blessed English is nothing if not profligate. Synonyms abound. That we leave them latent, shelved in linguistic cold storage, is our loss. Some of us revel in the non-utilitarian redundancy of our language.
My boss subscribes to Harper’s, and every few months she brings me a stack. In the January 2015 issue, in the section called “Readings,” is a glossary nicely titled “Alcoholics Synonymous,”which lists twenty-four slang terms used by British students to describe “drunkenness or the effect of drugs.” I’ve heard only one of them, “sloshed.” “Swilled,” I assume, is a variation on the verb “to swill.” “Hoovered” is intriguing: president, dam or vacuum cleaner? “Hamstered” is evocative, but the Harper’s list hardly amounts to a sip compared to the ocean accumulated by Paul Dickson in Intoxerated: The Definitive Drinker’s Dictionary (Melville House, 2009). He identifies 2,985 synonyms for “drunk.” A few favorites: “staying late at the office,” “heroic,” “T.U.B.B.” (“tits up but breathing”), “back teeth afloat,” “been too free with Sir John Strawberry” and “Betty Ford-ed.” Call it folk poetry, much of it better than what passes for the certified stuff.
In Macbeth, Shakespeare gives us “spungie,” which the OED rather primly defines as “resembling a sponge in absorptive qualities; absorbent. Chiefly fig.” In “Shadow Language” (Fine Incisions: Essays on Poetry and Place, 2011), Eric Ormsby celebrates the “incomparable abundance of Shakespeare’s language.” The only subject that probably surpasses drunkenness in terms of linguistic bounty is sex, but what cheers me most is not so much the sources of inspiration as the overflowing genius of our language. When feeling grateful for the bounty, I remember Kinbote’s commentary on Line 172 in John Shade’s poem “Pale Fire” in Nabokov’s novel:
“The subject of teaching Shakespeare at college level having been introduced: `First of all, dismiss ideas, and social background, and train the freshman to shiver, to get drunk on the poetry of Hamlet or Lear, to read with his spine and not with his skull.’ Kinbote: `You appreciate particularly the purple passages?’ Shade: `Yes, my dear Charles, I roll upon them as a grateful mongrel on a spot of turf fouled by a Great Dane.’”