Wine O’Clock, Beer O’Clock and the Changing Language of Drinking

Beer o'clock, brosé, turnt. As new words to describe drinks and drinking enter the lexicon, the Oxford Dictionaries Online must decide which pass muster. With both wine o'clock and beer o'clock making the cut in 2015, Regan Hofmann takes a look at how our official drinking lingo has evolved over the last decade.

Wine o Clock

Wine o’clock has officially arrived. No, it’s not time to crack open an afternoon bottle of pinot grigio, though more power to you if you already have; last month, the term itself was added to the Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO), along with its cousin, beer o’clock. Every quarter, the ODO announces a new crop of words to be added to the official register, signaling their ascent to usage so common that they’re ready to be preserved in the lexicon for future generations. As new terms arise, ODO editors watch for their use in everyday writing until they’ve reached that elusive tipping point; also in the August addition were manspreading, bitch face and swole (surely inspired by Drake’s recent transformation).

ODO is the cooler, modern cousin of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which uses a similar vetting process to add new words. But where the OED considers itself a fortress of the English language, ODO is most concerned with staying current. “We collect about 100 million words of English in use every month from different places on the Internet—from newspapers, blogs, different types of content—and that gets analyzed each month,” says Katherine Martin, Oxford University Press Head of US Dictionaries. “[Additions to the ODO have] been identified by our editors and met the criteria for being used in a wide variety of sources.”

It’s rare that drink-related terms are included in updates to either canon. The vast majority of the ODO’s food- and drink-related additions of the last five years are straightforward nouns, many of which have only recently found their way into regular English usage from other languages—parm (2014), michelada (2013)—or are fairly new innovations—appletini (2013), dirty martini (2012). Older nouns, too, are still being added, having been overlooked by previous generations of high-minded dictionary writers (the Brandy Alexander, a century-old cocktail that had a major renaissance in the 1970s, was only added in 2012).

After these building-blocks basics, new drinking terms deemed dictionary-worthy have primarily been interested in the act of getting drunk, from bousy, found in Samuel Johnson’s seminal 18th century accounting of the English language, to the OED’s blotto (1917) and 2013’s ODO addition, blootered (from Scottish slang). Just as the drink of choice changes with each generation, so must each group have its own new and creative way to describe that most elemental of states.

Much rarer is the addition of terms we use when we talk about how we drink. The OED has tracked happy hour back to 1914, when it was a Navy term for a period of entertainment on ships; it gained its current bar association in 1967. Singles bar was first noted in 1969, four years after the genre itself was invented. But for the nearly half-century since, there’s been almost nothing new about how we drink or where we do it. Cocktail bars and their trappings aren’t exactly new, even if the ways in which they are presented are. Speakeasy-style setups, in-vogue ingredients like shrubs and bitters—even the much-maligned mid-’90s term mixologist can be traced all the way back to the 1850s. The OED had even declared one such word—oleosaccharum—obsolete until cocktail bars and writers started using it again in the past five years.

Wine and beer o’clock are among the pioneers of a new online drinking language, one that speaks to a kind of consumption that happens primarily for show. They’re infinitely hashtaggable (140,000 and 100,000 Instagram results, respectively), and have served as the basis of countless memes, all of which work to turn the simple act of relaxing with a drink into a full-fledged ritual.

Much of that writing has been, of course, online. “English has a very strong online life; if you think about 20 years ago, the Internet was separate from regular life, so there was Internet language as a sort of subcategory of English and then there was mainstream English,” says Martin. “Now, how much of the interaction that you have with English is on the Internet? How much of what you read is on the Internet? I think that distinction is falling apart a little bit.”

As the way we communicate evolves, language itself evolves, too. Aside from the occasional political buzzword like Grexit and swift-boating, the majority of the updates to the ODO over the last five years have a decidedly online origin story: character-saving acronyms like SMH and OMG, gamer lingo like pwned and fangirl, meme-speak like lolcat and humblebrag. Even the OED has accelerated its pickup process, forgoing its usual requirement of decades of recorded use to include such relative linguistic infants as crowdfund (2008) and staycation (2005). Not only does online media feed the churning engine of new language development, it gives us more venues to use these new words—from Tumblr to Twitter to Snapchat and beyond—and accelerates the adoption process from weird new slang to can’t-live-without-it.

“There’s always been new slang words; I just think we are more aware of them because of the ways in which we consume and live our lives now,” says Fiona McPherson, Senior Editor for the Oxford Dictionaries. “We are bombarded with more and more avenues where those sort of words are used.”

Wine and beer o’clock are among the pioneers of a new online drinking language, one that speaks to a kind of consumption that happens primarily for show. They’re infinitely hashtaggable (140,000 and 100,000 Instagram results, respectively), and have served as the basis of countless memes, all of which work to turn the simple act of relaxing with a drink into a full-fledged ritual. Beer o’clock first appeared in Urban Dictionary in 2004, as, essentially, a synonym for happy hour. Wine o’clock followed in 2007, and its rise has had a markedly female bent, alongside other wine neologisms like mommy juice. The phenomenon has become so commonplace that it’s been used to broach the sensitive topic of alcohol abuse, as in the self-help series The Sober Revolution: Calling Time on Wine O’Clock.

As with so many other Internet sensations (Sh*t My Dad Says, Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever), network TV caught on, too. Cougar Town, the cultishly loved, poorly named sitcom that ran from 2009-2015, was a 22-minute weekly infomercial for wine o’clock, centered around a suburb-dwelling 40-something woman whose oversized wine glass was a secondary character itself—RIP Big Carl! Among the meme-ish wine phrases (“Purple Tooth Crew,” “pounding grape”) the show’s writers came up with for comedic effect, wine o’clock was a natural fit and was regularly used by both the show’s social media accounts and its vocal fan base—all online, of course. Art imitates life imitates art.

Still, food and drinks, as niche interests, have always struggled for widespread linguistic acceptance—just think of that poor old Brandy Alexander. But as drinks culture becomes more mainstream, we can expect to see more of its terms—and memes—making their way into the lexicon. Brosé seems ripe for the picking, as does turnt. How long until day-drinking makes it into the OED? Until then, let’s treasure every wine o’clock as if it’s our first.

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