Q From Jonathon Hargreaves: It’s getting a bit old-fashioned nowadays, I think, but it has always intrigued me that one word for a confirmed drunkard is lush. How did that come about?
A Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time, there was a London club. Its members were actors and variety artists, who met for the purposes of convivial drinking in the Harp Tavern in Great Portland Street. (Stage hands and other theatre technicians excluded from joining banded together in the same pub around 1822 and formed a friendly society now called The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes.) The club was organised on humorous lines after the model of the governance of the City of London, electing a “lord mayor”, four “aldermen”, who presided over “wards” called Juniper, Poverty, Lunacy, and Suicide, and lesser officers with names such as City Physician, City Taster and City Barber. The club called itself the City of Lushington.
The idioms Lushington, Alderman Lushington, voting for the Alderman, dealing with Lushington and Lushington is his master were used from the early 1820s for a person who habitually imbibed not wisely but too well. Here’s an example of the first of these terms from a little later in the century:
For this club-room tippling induces drinking habits in some young men, confirms them in others, and affords convenient opportunities for indulgence to those who are already confirmed “lushingtons.”
Some Habits and Customs of the Working Classes, by Thomas Wright, 1867.
Some writers have asserted that these slang terms come from the name of a prominent London brewer who has, however, never been identified. They must instead surely derive from the humorous rituals of the club.
You might deduce from all this that lush is an abbreviation for Lushington. It’s an attractive and plausible idea. Lush began to refer to a drunkard in the early 1820s, around the same time as the Lushington expressions appeared. By the 1850s it had arrived in California and it was in the US that it flowered into a long-lived common deprecatory term. But the truth about this suggested origin depends on the chronology of Lushington and lush, which in the current state of knowledge is hard to work out.
Some reports put the founding of the City of Lushington club in 1750. This can’t be confirmed, though Pierce Egan, in his Real Life In London of 1821, described it as “this ancient city”. That would put it well before lush and suggests that the club’s founders based its name on something else, perhaps that unrecorded London brewer. But Egan added, “we doubt not our numerous readers will discover that its title is derived from an important article in life, commonly called Lush.” Egan means lush in an associated but older sense — that of alcoholic drink, specifically strong beer.
It seems probable — albeit based on incomplete evidence — that the slang lush for alcoholic drink came first, that the club’s name of Lushington was based on it, presumably as a joke on the family name, and that its members’ fondness for drinking to excess helped lush to shift from drink to drunkard.
If lush did come first, we then have to work out where it comes from. Jonathon Green, in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, suggests that it might be from the old German word Loschen, which also means strong beer, or possibly from lush in the Irish traveller argot Shelta, which meant to eat and drink.