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There is a serious definition issue with the word “hangover.” We’ve already discussed the stigma and misunderstanding surrounding hangovers, and we’ve established hangovers are shades of gray rather than a binary black and white phenomena; any drinking will result in a hangover—even 99% fine is still 1% hungover. Despite this, the stigma around the word “hangover” persists—and will continue to until we popularize this more nuanced understanding of hangovers over time.
Of all drinkers, only 7% drink enough to regularly experience intense hangovers, i.e., a state of, say, being 50% hungover or more, and yet the word “hangover” itself is (mis)understood to always be an inherently intense phenomenon. That means the current accepted definition of a hangover excludes the common day-after experience of the other 93% of drinkers. This means that 93% of drinkers on average are experiencing lesser hangovers, but don’t seek relief because they don’t think what they are experiencing is bad enough to be classified as a hangover.
Ultimately, this is a failure in the common definition of a hangover; it does not include lesser symptoms at all. All diseases have “mild” versions of them, e.g., mild anxiety disorder, mild hypertension, mild headache, etc. “Mild” simply means lesser, signifying that the problem isn’t yet as bad as it’s often presented… but it’s still a problem, and is therefore worth classifying. In the same way that other problems have a “mild” classification, we believe that there should be a classification of a “mild hangover.”
However, despite “mild hangover” being an accurate description of what millions of Americans experience everyday, there’s a stigma attached to the “hangover” part of the description—no matter how accurately the condition is described, as long as the word “hangover” is present, the stigma is, too. Therefore, we created a new way to describe these mild hangovers: “bleh.”
By calling a lesser hangover “bleh,” instead of the more technical and jargon-laden term, “mild hangover,” we instantly take the discussion from abstract to relatable in one word. “Bleh” is what it sounds like. It’s the feeling of not being 100% fine, but also not being 100% not fine… it’s somewhere in between. You don’t feel great, nor do you feel terrible either.
Because “bleh” is more widely experienced than intense hangovers, and “bleh” is easy to understand, the new word serves as an excellent starting point for having a conversation about hangovers and why they are a spectrum of shades of gray rather than always intense, painful experiences. The new word takes a discussion from abstract to relatable in one word. Some of the most obvious, important realities are the hardest to see and talk about, and a conversation about hangovers and alcohol-related health is impossible when the person you’re talking to is defensive at the use of the word “hangover” alone.
What things are called, their names and the words we use for and around them, are incredibly important; the names of items, phenomena, places, are the foundation of communication and understanding. A doctor can’t treat an illness without knowing what illness they are treating; the difference between having the name of an illness and not having it is literally a matter of life and death, since medicine is such a precise profession. Names are where we place the majority of meaning in life — they are the way we wrap definite and metaphysical importance into objects, places, and people.
Names are the foundation of communication and understanding.
In fact, once you realize the importance of words and names to shape the way we humans understand things, it should come as no surprise that even in the Biblical book of Genesis, in the story of Earth’s creation the first task God gave Adam to “name” the animals. True story or not, the thrust of the message is that humans make sense of the world through how they name and categorize the things around them.
The word “hangover,” despite defining a universal phenomena for drinkers, has been co-opted by only extreme examples of what people feel like after drinking extreme amounts of alcohol. Despite these examples being far from the norm, they are what the average American imagines when they think “hangover.” This extreme notion of a “hangover” is so ingrained in culture that there is an entire franchise of movies based on the comedic consequences of drinking alcohol and their resulting hangovers (pounding headaches, face tattoos, and near-death experiences).
Naturally, millions of moderate drinking Americans are at the very least hesitant to use the word hangover, fearing the stigma of being labeled a binge drinker. Many of the same drinking Americans also totally misunderstand the full scope of hangovers (shades of gray, not black and white) and think that hangovers are only bouts of intense symptoms. Since any drinking will result in a hangover with an intensity that is relative to the amount consumed, all drinking Americans are getting hangovers whether they admit it or not. If all drinkers are getting hangovers, but the majority don’t want to admit it, that means the majority of drinkers are potentially missing out on solutions or relief specifically because of the stigma around the name “hangover.”
Everyone has been there before. You wake up, you don’t feel terrible, but you definitely don't feel good. You feel… “bleh.” Even though everyone may have their own, slightly different denotative definition of “bleh,” everyone instinctively, connotatively knows what “bleh” is. “Bleh” evokes a physical connotation that most everyone on the planet has felt before: a simultaneously nebulous yet thoroughly defined sensation of discomfort. It’s all right there in the word itself. This is why “bleh” is such an excellent pairing for lesser hangovers; the symptoms of hangovers are incredibly variant, and even the same person may not experience the same exact hangover two instances in a row. In this case, “bleh’s” own ambiguity is a key point to why it’s an excellent re-definition for lesser hangovers.
At lower intensities, all of these symptoms may be anomalous and hard to pin down, and someone may have a very difficult time explaining why they feel less than good. But, despite the wide variety of symptoms, they all lead to the same place: discomfort; feeling less than 100%. In other words, “bleh.”
“Bleh” is already widely used to communicate discomfort, dissatisfaction, boredom, and other mildly undefinable feelings that have the same physical outcome: the feeling of “bleh” itself. You can even pantomime “bleh” to someone and they will understand what you mean. In the same way the word “hangover” has invaded our subconscious to be connotated with misery, “bleh” is also subconsciously understood — but, ironically, despite “bleh” literally meaning discomfort, “bleh” is fun. Invoking “bleh” is like letting someone else in on a silly secret; instead of prompting “Oh nos!” from your cohorts and finger-wagging from your superiors the way saying “I have a hangover” will, “I’m feeling bleh” can be said with a knowing smile and everyone will be able to associate with you, shame-free. Because, as said earlier, everyone has been there before.
Most moderate drinkers, as we explored in our article about hangover stigma, will deny or not know they have a hangover. But by their knowing they don’t “feel good,” they can admit they feel “bleh” (being that they don’t know exactly how they feel, they just don’t feel good), and are therefore part of the conversation, rather than exclusive of it. Introducing another word that moderate drinkers use, like, and relate to will help reframe the conversation around hangovers in general. This is a classic technique of teaching; sublimating a taboo idea to an acceptable one by demonstrating that two seemingly different words have the same meaning.
Without this conversation, without “bleh,” it would be much more difficult to reframe hangovers. “Hangover” would continue to have stigma and taboo, and many drinkers would go on without aid for alcohol’s negative effects. But with “bleh,” moderate drinkers can understand better that there are ranges of hangovers, shades of gray, and what they are experiencing are hangovers in the lesser shades of gray.
Re-claiming the definition of “hangover” will take a considerable amount of time. At the very least, it will happen with each new Cheers customer we gain. (Which, we are up to 200,000+, so it’s happening faster than you would think!)
In the short term, trying to force drinkers to re-understand a word with such an entrenched meaning will do no good. Instead, slowly and steadily using words people can relate to, such as “bleh,” without fear of stigma, will allow us to reclaim the definition of hangovers overall.
The negative effects of drinking alcohol are unavoidable, and people avoiding the word that describes them will not make those effects go away. “Bleh” allows us to educate people about the hangovers they themselves experience, without the stigma and knee-jerk reaction, and by doing so allows people to be honest with themselves and take the steps necessary to feel their best after consuming alcohol.
Bendsten, P., et al. “Measurement of Alcohol Hangover Severity: Development of the Alcohol Hangover Severity Scale (AHSS).” Psychopharmacology, Springer-Verlag, 1 Jan. 1998, link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00213-012-2866-y.
“Bleh.” Urban Dictionary, www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Bleh.
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Sublimation (Psychology).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 31 Dec. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sublimation_(psychology).