The Grammarphobia Blog

Are you punchy or drunk?

Q: Where does the term “punch-drunk” come from? Does “punch” refer to the spiked drink or being punched in the face and staggering around as if drunk?

A: Your second guess is correct, though either “punch” can leave you staggering around like a drunk.

The expression “punch-drunk” comes from boxing, according to A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (8th ed.), by Eric Partridge. It describes the dopey, bewildered behavior of someone who has taken a lot of hard punches to the head.

The phrase “slap-happy” may have originated in the same way, a product of the boxing ring. Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says it started with boxing in the 1930s and described someone whose brain was scrambled in the ring.

The earliest published reference for “punch drunk” in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from a 1912 issue of a Wisconsin newspaper, the Sheboygan Press: “”Punch-drunk through the first round, and floundering around like a great helpless calf, his mouth and nose shedding blood in a thick stream.”

The expression soon came to be used more generally to refer to confused or stupefied behavior outside the ring. Here’s a citation from a 1925 issue of The American Mercury magazine: “The tattered standard is thrust into the broken hands of a punchdrunk politician.”

And physicians began using the expression to refer to the medical condition suffered by boxers and other athletes, as in this 1928 citation from the Journal of the American Medical Association: “The early symptoms of punch drunk usually appear in the extremities.”

I don’t want to leave you punch-drunk from information overload, but here’s one more OED citation, from a 2004 issue of Current Sports Medicine Reports:

“For soccer, there has been some concern that heading may be associated with the development of cumulative traumatic brain encephalopathy, or the ‘punch drunk’ syndrome described in boxers.”

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.