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Newts, like parrots, get squiffy




This Oregon (US) roadsign seems to warn that squiffy newts can be a traffic hazard.

In spite of some 70 years of familiarity with slang and colourful, often crude, expressions, I have never heard 'pissed as a parrot' before, though 'pissed as a newt' was in common use in my distant student days.

That's the text of an email we've received from our friend Dr Hugh de Glanville, of Weybridge, Surrey, England, retired tropical physician, who is a member of the Queen's English Society. He was commenting on last month's story about pickled parrots.

Being about the same vintage as Hugh, we too had heard of inebriated newts, and had sometimes wondered how cute newts became such objects of ridicule. As usual, the internet quickly provided an answer.

We found this notice attached to a virtual noticeboard on the WordOrigins website:

As for pissed as a newt, I was told it comes from the walking motion of newts. The side to side action is like a drunk lurching down the street. The person who told me this was probably three sheets to the wind so I wouldn't take it as gospel.
- Happydog.

It's hard to believe that this event [British Comedy Awards] has been going for 15 years. Hosted as ever by Jonathan Ross, the affair has become something of a staple in the television schedules if only because it offers the enticing prospect of seeing some of the most famous people in Britain pissed as newts.
-- Ian O'Doherty, Festive TV, Belfast Telegraph, Northern Ireland, December 22, 2004.

We also found a highly entertaining story in the UK magazine The Globe, in which Andrew Varley reviewed The Oxford Dictionary of Slang:

The word "booze" itself has, we are told, been in use since the early fourteenth century; we have been tippling since 1581, though surprisingly grog has only been around since the year before Trafalgar.

You have been squiffy for just over a century, plastered since 1924, blotto since 1917, and if you are stinko paralytico you have the authority of Evelyn Waugh in "Put Out More Flags" (1942). Are you Adrian Quist (Australian, 1978), or Brahms and Liszt (1978)? Might you prefer to be uncontemporaneous and hence Mozart and Liszt (1979) or what about just plain pissed (1929).

Of course, these dates are simply snapshots in time, referring to the first printed record. They capture the youth of a slang term rather than its infancy, but I am surprised that no-one was as pissed as a newt in print before 1957 and I refuse to accept that I did not know any piss artists (1977) as an undergraduate.

Like parrots and newts, owls too have been unfairly accused of being pissed, probably because of their glassy-eyed appearance. A poem by the New Zealand -born humourist Fred Dagg (now the Australian TV satirist/actor/author John Clarke) includes this couplet:

And the sea was quite lumpy, and the weather was foul
And the bloke with the map was as pissed as an owl.

The Drunktionary website ("a shamelessly politically incorrect collection of slang terms for 'drunk'") lists all these members of the animal kingdom under Drunk as...

aardvark, ass, autumn wasp, badger, barrel full of monkeys, bat, billygoat, boiled fowl, coot, dancing pigs, dog, drowned rat, fish, forty billygoats, fly, hog, hoot owl, lion, loon, mice, monkey, mouse, pig, rat, skunk (in a trunk), sow, swine, tick.


Story first posted January 2005

Copyright 2005

Eric Shackle

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