Monday, 28 June 2010

It's only words ...

The picture shows L'Homme
Politique (The Demagogue)
by Franz Marsereel, 1923.
Walking through town this morning after dropping my car off for its MOT, I saw a fellow wearing a T-shirt that stated: "DON'T ABUSE ALCOHOL just drink it". Quite funny, I thought, but then it got me thinking about the language associated with alcohol ~ the word 'abuse', in particular, which has been hijacked by anti-alcohol campaigners in the phrase 'alcohol abuse'.  The word 'abuse' is laden with negative associations: 'verbal abuse', 'domestic abuse' and, nastiest of all, 'child abuse' are phrases that accurate describe aggressive, violent or exploitative behaviour that has a victim, often incapable of self-defence. 'Alcohol abuse', as a phrase, doesn't work the same way: where is the victim? People who drink damaging amounts don't abuse the alcohol, which is after all designed to be drunk; the victim is their own health. In other words, self-inflicted injury rather than abuse.  The correct phrase should be 'alcohol misuse', but that doesn't have all the loaded, negative connotations of 'abuse' that the campaigners want.  

Does this matter? I think it does, as the choice of words sets up unconscious associations in the mind. To give a hypothetical example from industrial relations, during negotiations management might say: "We've listened carefully to your arguments, but have decided on balance to implement our original proposals". In the subsequent union circular, this may be reported as: "Although we presented many arguments against management's plans, they simply imposed them, refusing to budge an inch." In this case, both statements are factually correct, but the words on both sides have been chosen to give entirely different impressions. It's important that those of us who enjoy drinking should not accept our opponents' loaded vocabulary.

On the other hand, it must be said that we drinkers do seem to have our own vocabulary. In any CAMRA report of a beer festival, brewery trip or pub crawl, the drinkers will 'sample' the beers. Look at all the words for becoming inebriated; people rarely say "I'm drunk". They might say merry, tipsy, pissed, bladdered or any one of dozens, if not hundreds, of terms. CAMRA people will talk about 'sessions' (when they usually drink 'session beers'), which is just another way of saying drinking lots of ordinary strength beer all night in the pub. We often say, "I'm going for a pint" or "I could do with a drink." Just one, then?

Does this matter? Not really; such terms are just slang or euphemisms, sometimes used for comic effect, and rarely to deceive. They are certainly not used to try to influence a so-called public debate and change government policy. Loaded language has been the tool of propagandists throughout history, and the anti-alcohol campaigners have learned those lessons. It's entirely up to them how comfortable they feel using the tools favoured by the likes of Goebbels.


  1. Language certainly does matter – it’s why propagandists spend so much time and effort over it. I agree that ‘alcohol misuse’ makes much more sense or even ‘alcohol self-abuse’ but think they’re highly unlikely to catch on with the anti-alcohol lobby. Even the word ‘drink’ is highly charged – to drink should just mean to consume liquid but ‘a drink’ is synonymous with alcohol.

  2. A nurse once asked me if I had ever abused alcohol; I replied that I had never said a word against it.


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