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shameless pleading

Binge

Tee many martoonies.

Dear Word Detective: I just read in an article that “binge” (as in a drinking binge) may come from the Belgian town of Binche. The author of the article apparently doesn’t trust that story himself. The only thing I could come up with through research was that “binge” used to be a dialect word from Northampton. — Alex, Switzerland (Yes, we even read your column here).

Hey, I’ll tell you a secret. Sometimes when I’m feeling a bit lonely I check the access logs for www.word-detective.com to see where my visitors come from. It’s really rather amazing. In just the past hour, in addition to the usual gang of Americans, Canadians and Brits, I’ve had visits from Bangkok, Mumbai, Sri Lanka, and Auckland, New Zealand. Five people in Moldova have visited this month, and I’m not even entirely certain where Moldova is. But it’s nice to know that if I wake up some morning and find myself on Malta I have at least sixteen friends there.

The article you sent along (www.globalpost.com/dispatch/benelux/100217/binche-carnival), about the annual Mardi Gras celebration in Binche, Belgium, is fascinating, and the slideshow that comes with it makes our Mardis Gras in New Orleans look almost sedate. “Mardi Gras” (French for “Fat Tuesday”) is, of course, the name given to celebrations culminating in what is also called Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of Lent in the Christian calendar. As Lent is a time of fasting and self-denial, Fat Tuesday was traditionally one’s last chance to use up all the fat, butter and other sinful goodies in one’s kitchen — thus the name.

It’s more than halfway through the article, just after a mention of “considerable drinking in the town’s many cafes” during the festivities, that the author ventures to mention that “It’s said that the English word ‘binge’ can be traced to Binche.” And I’d agree that no, the dude doesn’t believe that at all. “It’s said” is a classic journalist’s dodge. It’s actually refreshing to see a reporter decline to declare as absolute truth whatever some Chamber of Commerce has dreamed up to add a little more flapdoodle to the pile. “Binche” may bear a superficial resemblance to “binge,” but there is no connection between the two.

Celebrations of Mardi Gras have been going on in Europe since Medieval times, but “binge” is a relatively recent word in mainstream English, first appearing in print in 1854 meaning “a heavy bout of drinking.” I say “mainstream English” because “binge” was borrowed from the Northampton (UK) dialect verb “to binge,” which meant, appropriately enough, “to soak.” The origin of that dialect “binge” is uncertain.

Although “binge” as a verb was originally used specifically to mean “to drink to excess,” by the 1930s “binge” was being used to mean any kind of out-of-control spree, from eating food (“Marshall Neilan now and then goes on an eating binge,” 1937) to drug use (“The period after … [his] 1981 drug binge was a nightmare,” 1990) to shopping (“Consumers needed the steroids of repeated tax cuts and successive rounds of mortgage-refinancing to sustain their remarkable spending binge,” 2004).

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