Why is the Drinking Age 21?

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In short, we ended up with a national minimum age of 21 because of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. This law basically told states that they had to enact a minimum drinking age of 21 or lose up to 10 percent of their federal highway funding. Since that's some serious coin, the states fell into line fairly quickly. Interestingly, this law doesn't prohibit drinking per se; it merely cajoles states to outlaw purchase and public possession by people under 21. Exceptions include possession (and presumably drinking) for religious practices, while in the company of parents, spouses, or guardians who are over 21, medical uses, and during the course of legal employment.

That answers the legal question of why the drinking age is 21, but what was the underlying logic of the original policy? Did lawmakers just pick 21 out of a hat because they wanted college seniors to learn the nuances of bar culture before graduation? Not quite. The concept that a person becomes a full adult at age 21 dates back centuries in English common law; 21 was the age at which a person could, among other things, vote and become a knight. Since a person was an official adult at age 21, it seemed to make sense that they could drink then, too.

WHO WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR LOWERING THE DRINKING AGE TO 18 FOR PART OF THE 20TH CENTURY, THOUGH?

Believe it or not, Franklin Roosevelt helped prompt the change in a rather circuitous fashion. FDR approved lowering the minimum age for the military draft from 21 to 18 during World War II. When the Vietnam-era draft rolled around, though, people were understandably a bit peeved that 18-year-old men were mature enough to fight, but not old enough to vote. Thus, in 1971 the states ratified the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18. Legislators started applying the same logic to drinking. The drinking age, which the 21st Amendment made the responsibility of individual states, started dropping around the country.

Critics of the change decried rises in alcohol-related traffic fatalities among 18- to 20-year-old drivers in areas where the drinking age had been lowered. Indeed, one result of leaving states in charge of their own age was the creation of "blood borders" between states that allowed 18-year-olds to drink and those that didn't. Teenagers from the more restrictive state would drive into the one where they could buy booze, drink, and then drive home, which created a perfect storm for traffic fatalities. Even if teens weren't any more predisposed than older adults to drive after they'd been drinking, all of this state-hopping meant that those who did drive drunk had to drive greater distances to get home than their older brethren, who could just slip down the block for a beer or six. More miles logged in a car meant more opportunities for a drunken accident.

WHO LED THE BACK-TO-21 MOVEMENT?

Organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving began agitating for a uniform national drinking age of 21 to help eliminate these blood borders and keep alcohol out of the hands of supposedly less-mature 18-year-olds. As a result, President Reagan signed the aforementioned National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. MADD's "Why 21?" website touts that, "More than 25,000 lives have been saved in the U.S. thanks to the 21 Minimum Legal Drinking Age." Traffic reports show a 61 percent decrease in alcohol-related fatalities among drivers under 21 between 1982 and 1998. Raw numbers show that drunk driving fatalities have definitely dropped since the early 1980s; since 1982, drunk driving fatalities have decreased 51 percent. Among drivers under 21, drunk driving-related deaths have decreased by 80 percent.

Teasing out the underlying cause of this reduction in total fatalities is no mean feat, though. Non-alcohol traffic fatalities have also declined relative to the number of miles driven over the same time period, which could be attributed to any number of causes, including increased seat belt usage, the widespread use of airbags, and other safety improvements to cars and roads. Moreover, drinking and driving for the whole population might be down as the result of increased education on its consequences, harsher penalties, improved enforcement, or increased stigmatization of drunk driving.

College presidents who supported the Amethyst Initiative—a movement launched in 2008 to reconsider the national drinking age of 21—admit that drunk driving is a serious problem, but they point out that it's not the only potential pitfall for young drinkers. They contend that by lowering the drinking age, colleges would be able to bring booze out into the open and educate students on responsible consumption. Such education might help curb alcohol poisoning, drunken injuries, drinking-fueled violence, and alcoholism on campuses.

Interesting bit of trivia: the group takes its name from the character Amethyst in Greek mythology. She ran afoul of a drunken Dionysus, who had her turned into white stone. When the god discovered what he'd done, he poured wine on the stone, turning it into the purple rock we know as amethyst. Ancient Greeks wore the mineral as a form of protection from drunkenness.

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What is Wassailing, Anyway?

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It’s easy to think that wassailing is some cozy wintertime tradition that’s fun for the whole family. After all, there’s a jaunty, wholesome Christmas carol about it! But the truth is, if you ever see a minor out wassailing, you may want to call his or her parents.

The word wassail has many meanings. For centuries, it was a way to toast someone’s good health. Before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English soldiers reportedly sang:

Rejoice and wassail!

(Pass the bottle) and drink health.

Drink backwards and drink to me

Drink half and drink empty.

But, in England, wassail also denoted the alcoholic beverage you imbibed during that toast—an elixir of steamy mulled mead or cider. Sometimes, wassail was a whipped dark beer flavored with roasted crab apples.

Wassail was usually slurped from a communal bowl before, during, and after big events and holidays. It was supposedly on the menu during Lammas Day, a pagan autumnal harvest holiday that involves transforming cornhusks into dolls. It was also imbibed on Twelfth Night, a January holiday that involves lighting a fire in an orchard, dancing, and singing incantations to apple trees in hopes of encouraging a bountiful harvest.

By the Middle Ages, the practice of sharing a giant bowl of wassail—that is, the practice of wassailing—evolved from a holiday celebration to a form of boozy begging. “At Christmastide, the poor expected privileges denied them at other times, including the right to enter the homes of the wealthy, who feasted them from the best of their provisions,” Robert Doares, an instructor at Colonial Williamsburg, explained. The poor would either ask to sip from their rich neighbor’s wassailing bowl or would bring their own bowl, asking for it to be filled. According to Doares, “At these gatherings, the bands of roving wassailers often performed songs for the master while drinking his beer, toasting him, his family, his livestock, wishing continued health and wealth.” The original lyrics of Here We Come a-Wassailing are quite upfront about what’s going on:

We are not daily beggars

That beg from door to door

But we are neighbours’ children

Whom you have seen before.

Not all rich folk were happy to see wassailers at their doorstep. One 17th century polymath, John Selden, complained about “Wenches … by their Wassels at New-years-tide ... present you with a Cup, and you must drink of the slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must give them Moneys.”

Misers like Selden may have had a point: Since alcohol was involved, wassailers often got too rowdy. “Drunken bands of men and boys would take to the streets at night, noise-making, shooting rifles, making ‘rough music,’ and even destroying property as they went among the wealthy urban homes,” wrote Hannah Harvester, formerly the staff folklorist at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York. In fact, boisterous wassailers are one reason why Oliver Cromwell and Long Parliament passed an ordinance in 1647 that essentially banned Christmas.

By the 19th century, wassailing would mellow. Beginning in the 1830s, music publishers started releasing the first commercial Christmas carols, uncorking classics such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and The First Noel. Among them were dozens of wassailing songs, including the circa 1850 Here We Come a-Wassailing and dozens of others that are now, sadly, forgotten. As the custom of caroling became the dominant door-to-door pastime, alcohol-fueled begging dwindled. By the turn of the 20th century, carolers were more likely to sing about libations than actually drink them.

But if you’re interested in engaging in some good, old-fashioned wassailing, the original lyrics to Here We Come a-Wassailing are a helpful guide. For starters, ask for beer.

Our wassail cup is made

Of the rosemary tree,

And so is your beer

Of the best barley.

Don’t be shy! Keep asking for that beer.

Call up the butler of this house,

Put on his golden ring.

Let him bring us up a glass of beer,

And better we shall sing.

Remind your audience that, hey, this is the season of giving. Fork it over.

We have got a little purse

Of stretching leather skin;

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.

Screw it. You’ve sung this far. Go for it all, go for the gold, go for ... their cheese.

Bring us out a table

And spread it with a cloth;

Bring us out a mouldy cheese,

And some of your Christmas loaf.

Thirsty for your own wassail? Stock up on sherry and wine and try this traditional recipe from The Williamsburg Cookbook.

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Are There Any Synonyms for the Word Synonym?

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Some of the most frequently used words in the English language must have been created by someone with a devilish sense of humor. The word monosyllabic isn’t one syllable, long is only four letters, lisp is difficult to pronounce if you have a lisp, and synonym doesn’t have any synonyms. Or does it?

The answer to that last question is a bit complicated. Thesaurus.com lists metonym as a synonym of synonym, but their meanings aren’t exactly the same. The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar defines synonym as “a word or phrase that means the same, or almost the same, as another in the same language.” Metonym, on the other hand, is defined as “a word or expression which is used as a substitute for another word or expression with which it is in a close semantic relationship.” For example, the crown can be used to refer to the queen, and Washington sometimes refers to the U.S. government.

There is another possibility, though: poecilonym. This is probably the closest synonym of synonym, although it’s antiquated and rarely used. David Grambs, a lexicographer for American Heritage and Random House, included it in his 1997 book The Endangered English Dictionary: Bodacious Words Your Dictionary Forgot. The word is pronounced PEE-si-lo-nim, according to Grambs, who pays homage to its obscurity. “Maybe we could all use a few spanking old poecilonyms,” Grambs writes. “Poecilonym? It's an old synonym for synonym that you'll find in these pages. But many words in this dictionary have no real counterparts in today's English.”

Allen’s Synonyms and Antonyms from 1920 also lists poecilonym and another word—polyonym—as synonyms of synonym. However, it says both of these terms are rare. So technically, there are two other words that have the same meaning as synonym, but it’s a tough position to argue when those words are no longer in modern usage.

To add another dimension to this question, some have argued that there are no true synonyms at all, as every single word carries a different shade of meaning. “Even though the meanings of two words may be the same or nearly the same, they almost never are the same in connotation, distribution, and frequency,” according to Dictionary.com. “House and home may be offered as synonyms for each other, but we all know that they are not the same.”

So if you want to start using poecilonym or polyonym in place of synonym, you’d technically be correct—but don’t expect anyone else to know what you’re talking about.

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