By Kate Beeching and Laura Welsh
On Monday afternoon (27th June 2022), A.Prof. Kate Beeching (Visiting Fellow at the Bristol Centre for Linguistics) was asked to appear on BBC Radio Bristol to respond to a listener’s query about the origins of the phrase ‘p***ed as a newt’. (Note, that the P word could not be mentioned on the BBC and had to be replaced with ‘Hmm as a newt’!).
You can hear Kate’s appearance on BBC Radio Bristol with John Darvall on BBC Sounds (from 3:19:50)
Kate highlighted some of the 3,000 or so words used to talk about being drunk in English. They range from tiddly, tight, a few too many, a bit under the influence or half cut, to pickled, bevvied, sloshed, smashed, mortal fou (in Scotland) or tired and emotional (a term coined as ‘tired and overwrought’ in the British satirical magazine Private Eye on 29th September 1967 to refer to the British Labour politician George Brown). There are also a number of other comparative phrases similar to ‘p***ed as a newt’ including drunk as a lord, drunk as a skunk, high as a kite and tight as an owl. It is evidently a highly productive pattern.
But the question is: How did the newt, a graceful and agile creature, come to be regarded as an index of inebriation?
Kate could not give an authoritative answer to this question as the Oxford English Dictionary is silent on the matter, but she was able to provide an informed view on the likelihood of various more folklinguistic explanations:
- One possible explanation has to do with the way a newt walks – wobbling along (much like a person who has had too much to drink and is unable to walk straight).
- In an exchange of views on the Guardian website, one commentator suggested that it is a Scottish expression developed after the habit of using newts to test the strength of whisky, in a similar way that Mexican beer is tested using a worm. The idea is that if the newt is dead before it hits the bottom of the bottle, the whisky is strong enough. Radio Bristol host, John Darvall, suggested that was quite mean to newts! Indeed, the writer admitted that he had made up this explanation, showing how easy it would be for a fake explanation to circulate!
- The most plausible explanation seems to be that in Nelson’s time, Royal Navy ensigns were known as ‘newts’. Being so young, it didn’t take much rum for them to become inebriated. Hence the expression ‘p***ed as a newt’. John Darvall, having an interest in Lord Nelson and the Navy at that time, agreed this was a likely explanation saying, “I like that, that makes sense”, “those junior ensigns, midshipmen and what have you, they were very young lads, they were in their early teens some of them and they were called newts so that makes sense”.
We’ve been doing some further research and have come across the following additional explanations:
- ‘p***ed as a newt’ could originate from the mishearing of “an Ute,” as used by US Army personnel in Britain during the Second World War. The ‘Utes’ were an American Indian tribe who were celebrated for their drunkenness to the point the US Government banned the sale of alcohol in their reservation.
- The phrase might have first been used at a banquet for King Henry VIII. Apparently, “half-way through a banquet the king inquired as to what brew one young reveller had been partaking of, to be begged by the young man’s father to “forgive him, Sire, he is but a youth and as for wine he is new to it!” (The Guardian, 2013). It is then possible that this expression ‘p***ed as a new to it’ soon became ‘p***ed as a newt’.
- “Abraham Newton (1631-1698) of Grantham, the presumed author of the first known treatise on the medicinal properties of the beer of Burton-upon-Trent (now unfortunately lost), was such a well-known tippler that, in his lifetime, even Londoners would use the expression ‘p***ed as Abe Newton’” (ibid.). He was apparently so famous that “when his fellow townsman, Isaac Newton, came to prominence, people would say of him, ‘no, not that Newton’” (ibid.). This confusion reached its peak in the early 1700s, so it is likely that it was around this time that the expression ‘p***ed as a Newton’ was about which was later contracted to become ‘p***ed as a newt’.
So, there are several plausible origins to the phrase ‘p***ed as a newt’…over to readers of the UWE Lingo Blog to add their own plausible explanation (just beware of fake etymologies!)
Parsons, D. (1975) Tenth-century studies: essays in commemoration of the millennium of the Council of Winchester and Regularis concordia. Phillimore.
The Guardian (2013) How did the newt, a graceful and agile creature, come to be regarded as an index of inebriation? Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-2007,00.html [Accessed 27 June 2022].
Youridioms.com (2022) (As) pissed as a newt. Available from: https://www.youridioms.com/en/idiom/as-pissed-as-a-newt [Accessed 27 June 2022].