The Hard Truth About Alcohol
What is Alcohol?
The word “alcohol” actually refers to a broad class of organic compounds, among them methanol, ethanol, isopropyl alcohol, and propylene glycol. These compounds have a wide range of everyday and industrial uses. Alcoholic compounds are used as fuel additives, solvents, plasticizers, and detergents. Alcohol is naturally occurring throughout the world, and various forms of alcohol are present in sugars, fatty acids, and amino acids. The most common type of alcohol, however, is ethanol, which is produced via fermentation. When people use the word “alcohol” colloquially, they are generally referring to ethanol, which is the psychoactive substance in alcoholic drinks.
Alcohol has been used for social, religious, and medical purposes for over 10,000 years. Today, it remains an important component of social life and is the most widely used psychoactive substance throughout the world. Alcohol is legal in most countries, with the exception of a handful of countries in the Middle East. Despite and in part because of its widespread ubiquity, alcohol is also responsible for a number of social ills, including drunk driving accidents, violent crime, mental illness, and higher rates of sexual assault. Nonetheless, alcohol remains embedded in the fabric of civilization, with bars, festivals, parties, and even casual social interactions featuring alcohol in center stage.
People consume alcohol, a central nervous system depressant, for its psychoactive effects. Drinking alcohol provides a number of short term effects. People often experience a sense of euphoria, greater confidence, and higher self-esteem. Alcohol also loosens inhibitions and decreases anxiety in drinkers. For that reason, it is used widely in social situations as a way for people to “loosen up” and build stronger connections with each other, as well as privately as a means of elevating mood. However, these short terms effects of alcohol consumption also include physical and cognitive impairments. After these initial effects wear off, even casual alcohol users experience some degree of physical withdrawal, often referred to as “hangovers.”
Over the long term, alcohol use can lead to a number of dangerous physical and mental health conditions. Use of this intoxicant can also lead to lapses of judgment and poor decision-making that can be destructive or even fatal. Drunk driving and violent crime harm not only the people consuming alcohol, but disinterested parties as well. Regular alcohol use can also lead to physical dependence and ultimately addiction. Alcohol addiction, which afflicts millions of people, can destroy people’s quality of life or result in death. It is also extremely difficult to treat — and most people find it difficult to seek treatment in the first place. Unfortunately, because alcohol is allocated special respect in most cultures, its prevalence of use and social stigma surrounding addiction make it very difficult to eradicate these social ills.
The ability for the body to experience psychoactive effects from alcohol actually predates humans; our primate ancestors consumed fermented fruit and likely felt the effects. Archaeological evidence indicates that humans intentionally drank fermented drinks as far back as 10,000 BC. Chemical analysis of ancient Chinese pottery showed that they likely drank fermented beverages made out of grapes and hawthorne fruit as well as rice beer. Many indigenous civilization in America also fermented beverages, among them pulque, made from the fermented juice of the maguey. In Rome, wine was widely consumed; in fact, they believed that it was beneficial for citizens to drink it daily.
Medieval Arabs pursued the distillation process in a scientific way and experimented with many ways to distill wine to create hard alcohol. By the 12th century, knowledge of the distillation process had spread from the Middle East to Italy and China. By the 14th century, it had spread to India as well as the entirety of Europe. At first, distilled alcohol was rarely consumed and used mainly for medical purposes. By the 18th century, however, the relative affordability of gin made it wildly popular among the poor, causing the so-called “Gin epidemic.” At this time, drinking and drunkenness were not widely condemned and the effects of addiction were little understood.
Rapid urbanization and the wider availability of alcoholic beverages brought the social ills of inebriation to the public’s attention. The industrial revolution brought with it cultural changes, including increased stigmatization of coarse behavior and a prioritization of labor-efficient behavior. With that came a movement to decrease or ban the consumption of alcohol entirely. Known as the temperance movement, it was run by many religious leaders and social reformers who hoped to create a better society. Ultimately, this led to Prohibition in the United States in 1920. This short lived experiment in banning alcoholic beverages proved unsuccessful, as public demand for alcohol contributed to a rise in organized crime and ironically, according to some interpretations, a rise in overall alcohol consumption throughout the nation. By 1933, Prohibition was over, and alcohol consumption again became legal.
However, at around the same time as Prohibition, movements to treat substance abuse as a legitimate mental health issue began to earn public recognition. In 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous was formed in Akron, Ohio. It’s community-based spiritual solution to the problems of addiction not only helped many people with alcohol use disorder become sober, it also brought addiction to the public’s attention. The philosophy and structure of Alcoholics Anonymous was used effectively in many other 12-step programs to treat addictive behavior around a wide variety of substances. Addiction and alcohol awareness also led scientists, psychologists, and other researchers to study alcoholism and addiction in greater depth. By the turn of the 21st century, 12-step programs had millions of members worldwide and evidence-based formal treatment centers had become widely available. While alcohol is likely here to stay for the foreseeable future, alcohol addiction has finally become optional for those suffering from it.
Alcohol Street Names
Given its ubiquity in our society, it should come as no surprise that alcohol, like many recreational drugs, has developed a culture around its use. The result is a diverse amount of slang terms used to refer to specific drinks as well as behavior around drinking. Common alcohol drink names used by young people include but are not limited to:
Drinking Behavior Terms
Different Types and Forms of Alcohol
Essentially, alcohol can be classified into two categories: distilled alcoholic beverages and undistilled alcoholic beverages. A variety of other loose categories of alcohol also exist.