Q: If you say “I need a drink,” it’s assumed the reference is to an intoxicating drink, not water or soda. When did a “drink” come to mean alcohol rather than simply a beverage to keep yourself hydrated?
A: The short answer: about a thousand years ago.
When the noun “drink” showed up in Old English (as drinc) in the late 800s, it referred to a beverage, not necessarily an intoxicating one.
The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from King Aelfred’s translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiæ of Boethius: Næron ða … mistlice … drincas (“There were not then various drinks”).
A century and a half later, according to OED citations, the term was being used for an “intoxicating alcoholic beverage.” The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1042 document in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
Her gefor Harðacnut swa þæt he æt his drinc stod (“In this year Harthacnut died as he stood at his drink”).
Here’s a later example from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, written in the late 1500s or early 1600s:
“How it did grieue Macbeth! did he not straight / In pious rage, the two delinquents teare, / That were the Slaues of drinke, and thralles of sleepe?” (We’ve expanded the OED citation.)
When the word “drinking” showed up around 1200, according to Oxford, it specifically referred to “the use of intoxicating liquor, or indulgence therein to excess.”
The dictionary’s first example is in a document from around 1200 in the Trinity Cambridge Manuscript: Sume men ladeð here lif on etinge and on drinkinge alse swin (“Some men lead a life of eating and drinking like a herd of swine”).
Finally, here’s a “drink” example straight from the mouth of W. C. Fields: “I was in love with a beautiful blonde once. She drove me to drink. ’Tis the one thing I’m indebted to her for.” (From the 1941 movie Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.)