dry drunk

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Fri Nov 11 15:52:58 UTC 2011

"Dry drunk" is not in OED--or, apparently,  in any other meaningful
dictionary of record. Even Wiki just redirects to AA. Double-Tongued
(Grant Barrett) has an entry and there is a very similar one at Farlex.
Otherwise, even OneLook leads nowhere.


> an alcoholic who is not currently drinking alcohol but is still
> following an irregular undisciplined lifestyle like that of a drunkard


> a sober person who behaves as if drunk, esp. a recovering alcoholic
> who displays bad judgment; such behavior.

DTD has quotes going back to 1891, so it's not like it's all about W
(who, as a couple of my friends with expertise in alcoholism pointed
out, behaved as a dry drunk on multiple occasions). But OED does have
one quote pointing at W:

life n.
> c. (a) for (one's) life (also for dear life, etc.): as if, or in order
> to, save one's life. Cf. dear adj.1 5c, for prep. 9c.Also
> hyperbolically in trivial use: (I cannot) for my life , (I cannot) for
> the life of me.
> 2006    Vanity Fair Dec. 78/1   Bush is a 'dry drunk'--someone who
> quit one day and is just holding on for dear life.

7000+ raw GB hits. A few that I think have some significance. (Two
clusters--1955-1957 and 1888-1891, near DTD citations; but also several
much older cites.)

American Journal of Psychiatry (1955) has an article "The Psychodynamics
of the 'Dry Drunk'" (Flaherty et al., p. 460). The same article was
covered in Science News ("What is a "dry drunk?", p. 338), as well as in
Science (both for 1955). This seems to be a big vector in broader
distribution of the term, although it's been around for at least 70
years by then.

To antedate Grant's 1891, take a look at The Harvard Advocate for 1888.

The Harvard Advocate. Volume 46(4). November 23, 1888
The Week. p. 50/2-51/1
> There are several customs among college men which tend to bring the
> college into dis-repute and which are merely the result of
> carelessness and thoughtlessness. The first of these, the most
> important, absurd, and at the same time disgraceful is the habit which
> cannot be concealed, and which might just as well be talked about and
> held up in its proper light. We refer to the "dry drunk habit."
> Puerile it is, senseless it is, and yet harmful to the reputation of
> the college. Especially since the last torchlight procession we have
> heard remarks among outsiders of the intoxication of some of those
> marching; and we have been obliged to correct this idea by stating the
> truth, that a large number of these were merely what is popularly
> known as "dry drunk." Everyone knows in what this consists. Everyone
> has seen men who without having touched a drop of liquor feign
> intoxication. The men who act thus disgracefully do so presumably
> because they wish to make themselves conspicuous, or else because they
> think it the correct thing to appear in a state unbecoming a
> gentleman. Certainly there can be no real fun in it.
> ...
> Because the Cambridge cars are largely patronized by college men that
> fact does not give any proprietary ownership, or any exemption from
> rules of public order. And as it is here that cases of the "dry
> drunk," vulgarly called, are frequent, we wish to urge a little more care.
The Harvard Advocate. Volume 46(5). November 30, 1888
The Week. p. 65/1
> They cannot even indulge in the lowest of low acts, become dry drunk.

The Harvard Advocate. Volume 46(7). January 14, 1889
The Week. p. 97/2
> We have said before that there are several tendencies among college
> men which hurt the college more than they think. One of these customs
> we mentioned with severe censure, the case of the "dry drunk" of the
> man who pretends to be intoxicated when he is not. It is unfortunately
> not a rare case, despicable as it is.

Note that there is some variance from someone who spontaneously acts as
if he is drunk to someone who pretends to be drunk (while, in both
cases, being sober).

There is a second 1891 GB hit (different from Grant's Arizona Republic
find). Unfortunately, it's not quite as helpful in extricating the meaning.

Power through repose. By Annie Payson Call. Boston: 1891
9. Nervous Strain in the Emotions. p. 60
> There is a term used in college which describes most expressively an
> intense nervous excitement and want of control,--namely, "dry drunk."
> It has often seemed to me that sham emotions are a woman's form of
> getting drunk, and nervous prostration is its delirium tremens. Not
> the least of the suffering caused by emotional excitement comes from
> mistaken sympathy with others.

This particular passage ended up in several subsequent publications over
the next 30 years. There are a few other mentions of "dry drunk" between
1891 and 1955, but the 1955 article serves as a focus point for a
complete transformation of the term from college lore to a real
psychiatric phenomenon.

Of course, there is a "but". Actually, several "buts".

Would it be too presumptuous to place another use of "dry drunk" in
1780? The meaning appears to be--despite a distinct context--the same:
someone who acts intoxicated despite being sober. An additional twist is
that this one is British.

Bell's British theatre, consisting of the most esteemed English plays.
Volume 10: Volume 5 of Tragedies. Published for John Bell. London: 1780
Bell's Edition. Merope. A Tragedy. As written by Aaron Hill. As
performed at the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane.[?] London: 1776
Epilogue. p. 50
> Better, a sportsman, sound of wind, and hearty.--
> Better, Sir Sot--than spouse dry drunk with party ;
> A hunting husband hallows--and you hear him.--
> A drunken deary staggers--and you steer him.--

The dating is interesting because the series was published in 1776-81,
although the printing date is clear on the title page (assuming no
typos). But, of course, the plays are somewhat older.

The Gentleman's Magazine. Volume 19. London: April 1749
Poetical essays. Epilogue to Merope. Spoken by Mr. Garrick. p. 180/2

Aside from immediately following the Prologue, there is one punctuation
difference--second line ends in an exclamation point. (The London
Magazine and Universal Magazine for 1749 also cover the play, publishing
the Prologue and the Epilogue.)

I am not familiar with either Aaron Hill or Merope, except that there
are two other 18th century Merope sources--a Voltaire play and a 1711
Venetian opera libretto by Apostolo Zeno (who was obviously ethnically
Greek--a Cretan, in fact--but who lived his entire life in Venice). The
Hill text could be a translation of either, but there is no indication
of this in the Bell edition. Perhaps someone else with background in
period literature can figure this out. Or not.

But 1749 is most certainly the date. Browsing backward in the same
volume, on p. 171, we find

> The PLAN of Merope, a Tragedy, as alter'd from the French of Voltaire,
> by Aaron Hill, Esq.; acted at Drury Lane Theatre 9 Nights in the
> Month, and then put off till next Season, because of teh Actors Benefits.


One more: The Prologue also appears on p. 163/1 of The Scots Magazine
for the same month. Except it is actually the Epilogue (apparently,
Sylvanus Urban made a mistake).


Actually, the Prologue and Epilogue run in sequence, followed by the
Plan on p. 190.

Mr. Hill also managed to publish the play in Dublin the same year (or
else it was stolen and shamelessly replicated by an unscrupulous
printer). [I don't know how Google got 1748--the date on the title page
is unambiguously 1749.]


So, 1749 is a great year. What about year 1616? Or is it 1613?

The Miscellaneous Works in Prose and Verse of Sir Thomas Overbury, KNT.
Now First Collected. [Edited by Edward F. Rimbault.] London: 1856
Forren Newes of the Yeere 1616 [p. 183]. Newes from the lower end of the
Table. p. 192
> That no man can drinke an health out of the cup of blessing. To surfet
> upon wit, is more dangerous then to want it. Hee that's overcome of
> any passion, is dry drunk. Tis easier to fill the belly of faith then
> the eye of reason. The rich glutton is better fed then taught. That
> faith is the elbow for a heavy soule to leane on.

Now, here's the problem--Sir Thomas died in 1613. I don't know the
history of Overbury well, but I do know the basics. He wrote a brief
poem that caused a bit of a palace intrigue, resulting in his arrest in
April 1613. By September 1613, he was dead. The poem was registered in
December 1613 and published in January 1614. Subsequent editions of
Overbury's writing included similar pieces by others.

So the problem lies in dating these. A lot of it is meant as humor, so
projected news from 1616 would not be particularly surprising. The fact
that this particular header was included in this edition, along with
most of the content (some pieces had been purged as known to have been
authored by others), suggests that at least Rimbault thought that the
words were authentic (i.e., written prior to 1613). To make things even
more interesting, some of the included pieces are signed B. R., A. S.,
W. S., Mist. B., I. C. (as is the quoted piece), R. S., H. R., I. W., etc.

There is another possible explanation. Rimbault's notes (p. 310), explain:

> Page 183, line 1 ; Forren Newes of the Yeere 1616]. This date is
> changed with each edition, but the news remains the same in all.

I am sure Overbury scholarship has advanced since 1856 and someone will
be able to say with some degree of certainty if the passage above (from
p. 192) was indeed written in the early 17th century or was fabricated
in later editions. Whatever the case, it still appears that the
expression "dry drunk"--with slight fluctuations in meaning--has quite a
long history. And, I believe, it deserves inclusion.

One a few more pieces for good measure.

Apophthegmata Curiosa: or, Reflections, Sentences, and Maxims,
Historical, Moral, Philosophical, and Divine. By Richard Kingston.
London: 1709
376. p. 77
> Tis the Winding /Mace/ of /Folly/, wherein Men /Dry Drunk/ with Fancy,
> join Hands, Dance round, and grow Giddy, till they /Fall/ and /Sink/,
> to prevent which, we should consider, whether the /Custom/ pleases us
> in others? And whether it be fit for us?

Plautus's comedies, Amphitryon, Epidicus, and Rudens, Made English :
With Critical Remarks upon each Play. Laurence Echard. 2nd Edition.
London: 1716
Amphitryon. At 4. Scene 1. p. 69
> From thence I'll send him with a Vengeance, as soon as he approaches,
> and make him dry drunk, I'll warrant him. Next, Socia must go to pot,
> and be condemn' d for what I did.

Mr. Cooke's Edition and Translation of the Comedys of Plautus, Volume 1.
[Edited and translated by Thomas Cooke.] London: 1750
Amphitruo/Amphitryon. Act 4. Scene 1. [Footnote] 201. p. 199
Mr. Echard /has translated/ madidus sobrius dry drunk, /which is a very
odd Construction, and foreign from the Sense : what Connection is there
betwixt/ dry drunk, /which really means Nothing, and/ being moist
without, and dry within, /which is the Joke extended by/ Mercury, /who
designs to sluice him?/

The text above shows Plautus plays, in Latin, along with English
translation on alternate pages. "Echart" undoubtedly refers to one of
the editions of Plautus by Echart (shown above from 1716).

Sporting Review: A Monthly Chronicle of the Turf, the Chase, and Rural
Sports in all their Varieties. Edited by "Craven". London: January 1839
Scenes with "Uncle Sam." [By Wildbrake.] No. 1. Worthies of the Western
Border. [By the Author of "Sporting Sketches of America."] p. 24
> "No, sir," replied he ; "and blame my old boots if ever I shall !
> Blame the sea ! I wish it 'ould keep quiet. This is what I call being
> dry drunk, all the nuisance and none of the fun."

The exchange is taking place on a ship and the correspondent is
complaining that he hasn't got his "sea-legs".

EAN may provide a few more hits, but they are more likely in English


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