Wanna get blind drunk tonight?
I’m sure this isn’t a question most people start their night with, but I’m willing to bet that most of you have at least once described somebody at the end of the night as being blind drunk. It’s a phrase that has pretty much been in my personal vocabulary for as long as I can remember. But where did it come from?
In most English speaking societies it’s a phrase that has a firm pride of place in the vernacular English. But have you ever thought about what you’re saying when you utter the phrase? I mean it kind of makes sense right? Drink a little and you get a buzz. Drink a lot and you black out. Drink a whole lot and you pass out. The reasoning seems pretty good and for that reason I’d say 99% of people out there have never thought anything about it. But what if I told you that alcohol could not only blind you but also cure blindness? Bonkers right? Perhaps not. Now I’m not claiming that I have traced the exact origins of “blind drunk” to a singular occurance, the phrase has been in use in the English language for over 350 years. What I will do is explain some of the origins of where this phrase could have come from. And if your own origins are outside of the anglosphere, this association between blindness and alcohol pops up in other cultures too. For instance, in Spanish the word “ciego” means blind but it can also be used to describe someone who is very drunk. So sit back and enjoy diving down this etymological rabbit hole with me.
Obviously, vocabulary isn’t genetic, we adopt it from the culture that surrounds us as we grow and develop from a young age. I for one grew up in the Irish anglosphere so my vernacular version of English has been heavily influenced by a collection of old English phrases left behind by centuries of colonialism and updated with a weird mixture of new expressions that have been anglicised from the Irish language. Funnily enough, a few phrases that have been left behind in the old colonies have their origins in alcohol. “Dutch Courage” is a phrase that some of you may be familiar with. Nowadays it’s used to describe someone that has derived a bit of extra courage from the dis-inhibition qualities of alcohol. It’s another phrase that people use on a regular basis without ever thinking about the origins. In-fact as I compose this article a friend of mine asked me what I was working on and informed me he always wondered where the Dutch part came from. Have you ever wondered that yourself? The funny thing is I’m going to tell you either way.
Like, “blind drunk” the phrase “Dutch Courage” has been in use in the English language for over 350 years. The earliest accounts seem to date back to the Thirty Years War, where British soldiers noticed the apparent increase in bravery that the Dutch soldiers gained from consuming their national jenever spirit. This jenever spirit became known in English as “Dutch gin” and it was from this gin that the courage appeared to come from, so cue the term “Dutch Courage”. While the British soldiers were noticing some of the apparent “positive” effects of alcohol, I did promise to describe some of the negative too.
I promised you at the start of this article to explain how alcohol had the ability to blind and not only that but cure blindness also. Don’t believe me? I wouldn’t either but it’s all about the alcohol, one of the simplest alcohols, methanol. To explain how alcohol can take away and restore sight we’re going to dive into a bit of history and a bit of Science. I promise if you don’t know your dehydrogenases from your acetaldehydes it won’t ruin the story, but if you do perhaps it will give a bit more background of how all this takes place. So if science isn’t your thing bear with me, it’ll be fun I promise.
As I’m sure you all know there is a very fine but important difference between ethanol and methanol. The former is normal drinking alcohol; the latter is a highly poisonous alcohol. Methanol is a very simple alcohol; it’s colourless, flammable and highly toxic and most importantly it’s unfit for consumption. So obviously it’s not something you’d want in your whiskey. Perhaps you’d be surprised to hear that there are non-toxic levels of methanol in nearly all alcoholic beverages you pick up at the store? Distillers work tirelessly to ensure that their next bottle of whiskey won’t kill you but it’s near impossible to get every last molecule. Thankfully, methanol is incredibly light and volatile. It only has one carbon atom, whereas ethanol has two which means methanol is relatively lighter than its potable cousin ethanol. As such we can count our lucky stars that methanol has a lower boiling point than ethanol and comes off a still before its drinkable cousin, making the process of removing the poisonous alcohol relatively simple. In simplistic terms about the first 3rd of a distillation is methanol and after the distiller has decided that there is no longer methanol coming out of the still he will make a “cut” and change which vessel is receiving new distillate. One for harmful spirits, one for drinkable ones.
Now problems arise if you are either inexperienced in the science of distilling or if you are in the business of making as much illicit alcohol as possible. Poorly made alcohol is incredibly dangerous. It takes a very small amount of methanol to give the imbiber methanol poisoning. During prohibition bootleggers were poisoning people left right and centre with poorly made alcohol. The lucky ones were blinded, the unlucky ended up six feet under. Illicit distillers either didn’t know what they were doing or they simply decided that losing 1/3 of the volume of the distillation run was not a way to make money. Instead of losing 1/3 of their available profits they’d rather lose 1/3 of their customers it seems. I say that a tad flippantly but methanol poisoning is no joking matter.
You see many people at the time of prohibition wouldn’t have even known that they were ingesting toxic alcohol. It does have a distinctive odour but it is very similar to ethanol for the untrained nose and many of these illicit booze makers were mixing all kinds of things into the bottles to make the alcohol simply taste better. It would have been very hard to tell what kind of alcohol you were supposed to be drinking, never mind which type of alcohol molecule you were drinking.
The thing is when you first ingest methanol it will get you as drunk as ethanol. Even after consuming a toxic amount of methanol you will feel fine for a few hours, or even a full day. Then you will begin to start to feel sick and nauseous. This is the first stage of methanol poisoning. This sick feeling will be swiftly followed by dizziness, vomiting and a menagerie of flu-like symptoms.
We can thank the work of one enzyme (a biochemical catalyst) for this. It’s called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) it gets to work on both the ethanol and methanol that enters your body. On one hand, ADH oxidises ethanol into acetaldehyde which is further converted into harmless acetic acid (vinegar) by ADH’s cousin acetaldehyde dehydrogenase. On the other hand, ADH also converts methanol into formaldehyde, which isn’t ideal in the body but doesn’t hang around long. The issue arises when this formaldehyde is turned into formic acid, which is commonly known as ant venom. Symptoms get worse here because unfortunately formic acid stymies the action of another enzyme called cytochrome oxidase, which is integral to any cell’s ability to use oxygen.
Here’s where we get into alcohol’s ability to literally take away your sight. You see the optic nerve needs to use huge amounts of oxygen to function properly; this is why tunnel vision is one of the first symptoms usually associated with suffocation. So, this is why when people ingesting illicit alcohol during prohibition started to find themselves being “blind drunk”. Sight loss is a very severe symptom of moderate methanol poisoning. Severe methanol poisoning can lead to death in serious cases but even in cases where the afflicted survives they can be left with severe lesions on the optic nerve. Especially during the period of prohibition this would have been a very difficult affliction to treat for the poor soul that survived this toxic alcohol.
To clarify the term “methanol poisoning” may make this seem like you’d have to ingest a large amount of methanol to be affected. In reality as little as 4 millilitres of methanol has been found to cause blindness.
Methanol poisoning is still a very prevalent affliction; please don’t believe that this was thrown out with the bath water at the end of prohibition. Poorly made alcohol and counterfeit alcohol are large problems across Eastern Europe and the Asian continent. In several Asian cultures it is customary to bring homemade alcohol to celebratory events, like weddings, which can unfortunately become funerals very quickly.
Now, I did promise to tell you how whiskey can not only cause blindness but also cure it. Although, before I do that I must preface the following information by saying that my example only applies to methanol poisoning and if you suspect that you have incurred methanol poisoning do not use whiskey as a self-administered home remedy. If you believe that you are suffering methanol poisoning, please seek professional medical help immediately and don’t listen to me, presumably, to you I’m a stranger rambling on the internet. I am not a health care professional. But don’t be alarmed if the doctor’s remedy does in-fact happens to be a taoscán (Irish word for Dram) of the good stuff.
So how does alcohol cure blindness? I know you’re dying to find out. Well the same enzyme that converts methanol into formaldehyde, ADH, it turns out that it would much rather bond to ethanol than to methanol. Thus one way in which doctors may treat methanol poisoning is actually with a dosage of booze. ADH bonds to the ethanol instead of the methanol and it never has the chance to make formaldehyde or formic acid either. You will simply pass the methanol or exhale it. Which if you think about it, might give some validity to the idea that “hair of the dog” actually cures a hangover? Perhaps the new dose of alcohol gives the ADH something else to catalyse instead of the miniscule amounts of methanol you ingested the night before. Although, I will say this is a theory and not backed up by any studies that I have found… although I will continue my own experiments on the subject and get back to you.
So the next time you are sitting at the bar, I hope that this article has given you some food for thought on the root of the term “blind drunk” or at least gives you a tiny piece of trivia to impress your friends before you all test the theory that a drink the morning after really does cure a hangover.
Until then, keep sipping.