Unraveling a euphemism for ‘getting drunk’
Etymological sleuthing isn’t one of my usual pursuits, but last month, as I browsed an old slang dictionary, I stumbled onto a clue that seemed too promising to ignore. A nightcap, said John Russell Bartlett’s 1848 “Dictionary of Americanisms,” is “A glass of hot toddy or gin-sling taken before going to bed at night.”
That we knew, even if gin-sling is no longer our nightcap of choice. But the definition goes on: “When a second glass is taken, it is called ‘a string to tie it [the nightcap] with.’ ” And there’s an example, too, from an 1843 work of fiction: “Come, now, Squire, before we turn in, let us tie the nightcap.”
“Tie the nightcap” was the phrase that hooked me. Could it be related to “tie one on,” that mysterious slang expression meaning “get drunk”?
Nightcap itself, used since the early 19th century, is no mystery at all: Since tying on a nightcap (in the pre-central heating era) was the last thing you do before sleep, the word “nightcap” was applied to the pre-bedtime drink as well. And the author of the “tie the nightcap” quote, a Canadian named Thomas Chandler Haliburton, extended the metaphor in loving detail in the pages of “The Attache; or, Sam Slick in England.” On the eve of a departure, Sam wants to “tie a night-cap,” but his nightcap, he explains, requires embellishments:
“ ‘What a dreadful awful looking thing a night-cap is without a tassel, ain’t it? Oh! you must put a tassel on it, and that is another glass. Well then, what is the use of a night-cap, if it has a tassel on it, but has no string, it will slip off your head the very first turn you take; and that is another glass you know. But one string won’t tie a cap;…you must have two strings to it, and that brings one glass more. Well then, what is the use of two strings if they ain’t fastened? If you want to keep the cap on, it must be tied…
“Mr. Slick ordered materials for brewing, namely: whisky, hot water, sugar and lemon; and having duly prepared in regular succession the cap, the tassel, and the two strings, filled his tumbler again, and said, ‘Come now, Squire, before we turn in, let us tie the night-cap.’ ”
In a tidy linguistic universe, we would find that “tie one on” was the legitimate offspring of “tie the nightcap” – what could be more obvious? But in fact, “tie one on,” recorded only since the 1940s, is something of a puzzle. It may be an offshoot of the “bun” family, a group of expressions for being drunk – “have a bun on,” “get a bun on,” eventually “tie a bun on” – dating to the turn of the 20th century. Unfortunately, this trail is another dead end, since nobody seems to have any idea what the “bun” might have been.
Then there’s the “bag” branch of the drinker’s vocabulary. Farmer and Henley’s 1890 slang dictionary lists “To PUT or GET ONE’S HEAD IN A Bag” as printers’ and sailors’ slang for “drink,” with a quote from an 1887 issue of the Saturday Review: “It is slang, and yet purely trade slang, when one printer says of another that he has GOT HIS HEAD IN THE BAG.”
The “bag” in question may well be the “bag o’ beer” cited in James Redding Ware’s 1909 dictionary of Victorian slang, shorthand for a quart of a blended brew – “half of fourpenny porter and half of fourpenny ale.” By the 1940s, we have “in the bag” (and “half in the bag”), “bagged,” and, yes, “tie a bag on.” The last phrase could have been influenced by similar slang for “eat” – “to put on/tie on the nosebag” – but that gets us no closer to Haliburton’s nightcap strings.
A connection could still turn up, of course – some short-lived slang phrase that links the tied-on nightcap and the baffling “tie on a bun,” say. But from the evidence at hand, it looks as if Haliburton’s elaborate metaphor was just an amusing exercise, not the inspiration for a family of drinking idioms.
So “tie one on” is back to “origin unknown,” a familiar neighborhood for slang historians. Michael Quinion, who writes the weekly World Wide Words newsletter, is a frequent visitor: He’s had to put “malarkey,” “zilch,” “kibosh,” and even “the full Monty” (despite several appealing explanations) into the “unknown” file. We still don’t know why an early edition of a morning paper, published the night before, is called a “bulldog edition”; the truth about “the whole nine yards” eludes us. And Haliburton’s “tie the nightcap,” tempting though it is, can’t yet be considered the foundation for the much later and still elusive “tie one on.”
Jan Freeman, Boston Globe