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Deciphering the Language of Intoxication

Tipsy and drunk mean different things to men and women and could alter treatment, study finds

MONDAY, Dec. 15 (HealthDay News) -- A man being "hammered" may or may not be the same thing as a woman being "tipsy" or what a researcher considers "drunk," a new report shows.

The findings, expected to be published in the March issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, reveal that the language used by drinkers to describe intoxication differs much from what researchers use, causing limits in interpretation and understanding.

"As social and cultural animals, humans have developed a rich and diverse vocabulary of intoxication-related slang to describe the subjective states they are experiencing while drinking," corresponding study author Ash Levitt, a graduate student in the department of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri, said in a news release issued by the journal. "However, alcohol researchers have largely ignored the language of intoxication."

Researchers try to use objective measures and terms, but these ignore subjective differences of the individual drinking experience. Two Web-based surveys Levitt's team conducted to find out people's understanding and familiarity with certain synonyms for intoxication show the language difference is especially noticeable between men and women.

"We found that intoxication-related terms reflected either moderate or heavy levels of intoxication, and that 'drunk' reflected a level of intoxication somewhere between moderate and heavy," Levitt said. "Men tended to use heavy-intoxication words more than women, which were also relatively more forceful in their tone, such as 'hammered.' Women tended to use moderate intoxication words more than men, which were also relatively more euphemistic, such as 'tipsy.' This is similar to other gender differences in slang usage, for example, men 'sweat' and women 'glow.'"

One important finding was that 222 women in the survey, aged 17 to 24, leaned toward using the term "tipsy" to describe having an average of four drinks over two hours. According to Levitt, this meets the binge-drinking criteria for women but not men.

"Therefore, women could be binge drinking while psychologically perceiving their level of intoxication as being 'tipsy' or relatively benign, as opposed to heavier levels of intoxication that would be described with less euphemistic terms, such as 'hammered' or 'wasted.' Such a perception could potentially mislead women, for example, to feel as though they are capable of driving after drinking because they are 'only tipsy,'" he said.

Levitt said such findings could affect clinicians. "Previous research has shown that heavy-drinking interventions work best when individual feedback is not only personalized, but also gender-specific," he said. "Our findings can help clinicians improve these interventions by helping them understand which terms men and women differentially use."

More information

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has more about alcohol abuse.

-- Kevin McKeever

SOURCE: University of Missouri, news release, Dec. 15, 2008

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