In New Scientist, 3 December 2016 and Metro, 6 December 2016
New Scientist boasts that, “after years of public health messaging and a tightening of the advice on safe limits, the UK public finally seems to be reading the warning signs”. Additionally, it is claimed that alcohol consumption is decreasing especially among young people, which is “remarkable”, says New Scientist, because of “how entrenched drinking culture appears to be”.
In language, this is apparent too. When people ask one another how their weekend was, they gleefully report their achieved level of drunkenness, and they appear to get extra points for sporting a massive hangover especially if accompanied by a wretch or two, only to be replied with a roaring, sympathetic, conspiratorial laugh.
There’s nothing to laugh about. The World Health Organisation, if they are to be trusted, classifies alcohol as a group 1 carcinogen (together with asbestos and plutonium). According to New Scientist, regularly drinking three units a day can cause seven types of cancer, including mouth, breast and bowel. According to The China Study by Dr. Campbell (2006), “alcohol consumption increases breast cancer… by 41% for women consuming 30-60 g/day of alcohol” (The Guardian also published an article detailing this claim). So why when someone reports they have the flu and they feel unwell, we respond with a consoling utterance, or even an offer such as: “would you like some tea?” but laugh at the sound of hangover (don’t even get me started on the movie), when consuming alcohol is akin to poisoning oneself?
Health organisations have been campaigning and educating the public to consume less, putting a squeeze on the recommended guidelines:
“People were up in arms that their suggested weekly limits were being cut again”
Interesting lexical choice with cut. It conjures collocations with benefits or supplies. In fact, a quick search on the BNC reveals that the most frequent collocation is with off:
New Scientist reports at length about the intake and health differences between Russian alcohol consumption and the French’s, concluding that the time of drinking and the way people drank (with or without meals, bingeing or not) ultimately was the deciding factor when it came to health. This way of approaching and analysing the situation is a mark of the problem itself – it doesn’t matter how alcohol is consumed, the question we need to ask ourselves is why.
Join the revolution – Go Straight Edge.
Before talking about Straight Edge, we need to travel back in time to the teetotalism movement. It was first started in Preston, England, in the early 19th century. The Preston Temperance Society was founded in 1833 by Joseph Livesey, who was to become a leader of the temperance movement and the author of The Pledge: “We agree to abstain from all liquors of an intoxicating quality whether ale, porter, wine or ardent spirits, except as medicine.”
Then, 1842 sees a resurgence of inspirational groups of people, reacting in response to the industrial revolution . One of which is Bronson Alcott (father of author-to-be Louisa May). He was a true visionary, establishing a progressive school and adopting an out of time lifestyle in his Fruitlands, one of a number of utopian communities that were being established in New England. Fruitlands, similarly to other communities such as the successful Shakers, advocated avoidance of meat, milk, cheese, eggs, tea, coffee and alcohol. They even abstained from using animals in farm work, making ploughing the fields that much harder. They avoided using silk and cotton because the latter involved slavery, child labor and animal (silkworms) exploitation, and were advocates of women’s rights. According to Richard Francis’s biography detailing the Fruitlands community, the premise for this lifestyle was that Alcott (and his admirers in England) believed that that the Garden of Eden would return if only people avoided these foods and subsisted on water and fruit.
Establishing communities (or families, as the Fruitlanders called it) reflected a large-scale political and social unease spreading through America and Europe. The the industrial revolution, as mentioned above, and the rise of cities, with their consequent social injustice, poverty and environmental destruction, propelled Alcott to begin a new generation of spiritually-perfect offspring. His spirituality based on Transcendentalism has its roots in religion, holding that Christ was a regular man, not in possession of the ability to perform miracles. As Emerson put it “the very word Miracle, as pronounced by the Christian churches, gives false impression: it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain”. (in Francis, 2010, p. 4) Alcott, Emerson and others believed that Christ was an ordinary man that had lived a perfect life and set an example for others to follow. These new ideas established Brook Farm (founded by George Ripley and his Wife Sophia), Thoreau’s Walden cabin, and Fruitlands.
Fruitlands members (at its peak it was comprised of 13 members) had many disagreements and ultimately discontinued due to poor planning. But one thing they did agree on was that diet was the key to good life. They were a vegan community (Francis suggested this word was not even invented then, but according to Google Ngram, it has been used since the beginning of the 1800s:)
Alcott also had a strong stance on violence and oppression, and in the 1830s took part in abolition meetings, leading a refusal to endorse government injustice and pay poll tax. While Francis (2010, p. 7) terms Alcott’s (and his brother-in-law Samuel May, Thoreau, and others) behaviour as “an obsession with living an uncorrupted life”, I would refrain from using this negative evaluation because their aims were the kind we should all strive for: living a life that causes minimal damage to others, refraining from supporting authorities that abuse and oppress others, and above all, bettering ourselves and treating our bodies with care. By their courageous civil disobedience, they had set an example.
Since then, Fruitlands has been converted into a museum… that serves meat. The Linguini tried to bring to their attention the legacy on which their museum stands, and was assured that all meat is ‘organic’. *Sigh*.
Then came Punk, and with it the Straight Edge movement that is still going on strong today. Adherents refrain from using alcohol, tobacco and other recreational drugs, “in reaction to the excesses of punk subculture.“ For some, this extends to refraining from engaging in promiscuous sex, and following a vegetarian or vegan diet. The term straight edge was adopted from the 1981 song “Straight Edge” by the hardcore punk band Minor Threat.
(A cool band to check out if you haven’t come across them yet is Earth Crisis, who are xVx – Straight Edge vegan, and write material about animal rights).
The Sociolinguistics of Alcohol
Alcohol and gender
François Beck et al. (2008) report an important decrease in alcohol consumption in France: while in 1960 15 year-olds consumed 25 litres of wine, in 2001 it was only 15. Their research, however, goes into the role gender plays in alcohol consumption, veering away from the traditional focus on masculine habits of drinking. According to a 2002 study in le Baromètre Santé, men drink more often and in larger quantities than women. This has not only physiological reasons, but also social. Mary Douglas (1987, in Beck et al, 2008, p. 2) finds that in most societies, women are excluded from drinking strong spirits, raising the question of whether it is, in fact, just a physiological factor or a convergence between the sociocultural and medical facts. Sidsel Eriksen (1999 in Beck et al., 2008) who focuses his research on women and alcohol in Denmark, demonstrates how the gender roles are constructed in accordance to an economic and social context. In the beginning of the 20th century, drinking was a natural behaviour only for men and used as a right of passage for young boys into manhood.
With the growth in industrialisation and urbanisation, so did inebriation, especially amidst working class. Thus, for a man to go to the pub after work and come home drunk became part of urban work culture. For Eriksen, the sober wife is burdened with the role to counterbalance the man and protect society. So while drinking is a symbol of strength and virility for men, sobriety, purity and security become synonymous with femininity. This, in turn, develops the idea that masculinity is not something we are born with, but is a status acquired through consuming alcohol, while femininity (and sobriety) is innate.
Today, many women utilise alcohol as a marker of identity. In the private sphere, women can espouse (yes, pun intended) that of ‘the spirit of sacrifice’, a real woman who controls herself, is pure and sober. She is the sole responsible for maintaining successful family life, and if her husband leaves the family, it is because she did not make it a warm and welcoming enough environment.
Today, Beck et al. suggest that masculinity is not achieved through drinking perhaps because it is already accepted for women to drink in public and alcohol lost its symbol of masculinity. But in France, women, especially the well-educated and in full-time employment, drink more than men. This fact, they suggest could corroborate the hypothesis of emancipation at least for the 1950-1970 generation. They also note that among the unemployed and divorced couples, alcohol consumption is higher, and men seem to drink more than women. Beck et al. signal that while it is difficult to pinpoint the reason for this elevation, they suggest that since women take care of the household, they have less time to drink than men.
Why do people feel the need to turn to alcohol? Clearly, in many cases, it is a social activity. But why? What does it give people? Examining the language we use to talk about alcohol-related activities may give us at least a partial answer.
Metaphors we drink by
Not wanting to go all armchair linguistics on you, I bring some examples collected on eltsuwinchester. Metaphors are abstract concepts made concrete through the physical world. For example, saying that a person is warm, meaning affectionate, arises from our childhood, being held in our parents’ arms. That physical warmth is later ‘translated’ into an abstract concept to talk about a person’s personality.
Similarly with alcohol, language reflects our societal acts. When asked What’s your drink? you are really being asked about your personality, what kind of a person are you: are you a risk taker going for Absinthe?, a trendy person that will order the latest drink?, a classy Chardonnay lover or a down-to-business Tequila shooter?
If you go for that Tequila shot, you might get hammered or slammed quickly, and that might be the right drink choice if you want to drown your sorrows. In the UK, it is a common practice for young people and older people alike to get mashed and go on a pubcrawl, which means they will get plastered, wasted, and pissed. In the morning after the big night out, people will display pictures of their friends off their faces and joke about how shit-faced they had gotten while googling the best cure for a hangover. Next week, they will have to do it all over again and drink to forget.
All of the above metaphors clearly carry negative meaning, which points to a persisting dichotomy we encounter with meat eating as well. I suggest that living environments and working conditions have become increasingly unsupportive and alienating that drive people to turn to numbness more easily than not. Prof. David Graeber, The media, repetitively portraying film and TV characters going to drown their sorrows in a pub every time they are in a bind doesn’t help matters.
Finally, the Christmas frenzy overtakes the public who is (the Linguini does not participate) being pushed and coerced to buy junk for Christmas instead of promoting charity work is an indicator to how fragile our communities are in the face of consumerism and peer pressure. Change can only come from people themselves, so in the face of 2017, “be the change you want to see in the world.” -Mahatma Gandhi
I would like to wish you all happy holidays and a happy new year that will see more compassion.
Beck, F., Legleye, S. and De Peretti, G. (2008) ‘L’alcool donne-t-il un genre ?’, Travail, genre et sociétés, N° 15(1), pp. 141–160.
Francis, R. (2010) Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utpia, Yale University Press, News Haven.