The adjective blotto, which has mainly been used to mean drunk, originated in World War One British military slang. It is first recorded in this sense in the chapter Slang in a War Hospital of Observations of an Orderly: Some Glimpses of Life and Work in an English War Hospital (London, July 1917), by Lance-Corporal Ward Muir:
The words for drunkenness are innumerable—“jingled,” “oiled,” “tanked to the wide,” “well sprung,” “up the pole,” “blotto,” etc.
This word is commonly said to be derived from blot in the sense that the drinker has been soaking up drink like blotting paper, and/or that he, or his memory, is wiped out. For example, in A Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (London, 1993), B. A. Phythian explains the word as referring to
the capacity of blotting-paper to absorb a different kind of liquid.
In Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases (London, 1925), Edward Fraser and John Gibbons had already written that blotto is
Possibly from the idea of soaking up liquor like blotting paper. There is also a suggestion of the effect of over-indulgence in blotting things out from memory.
The word would therefore be composed of blot, or blotted, and the suffix -o. In support of this explanation, the suffix -o forming equivalents of nouns and adjectives was already productive before World War One slang. For example, kiddo, for kid, is first recorded in 1896 and ammo, for ammunition, in 1911.
However, forms of blot or blotted have not been recorded with reference to drunkenness before blotto appeared in 1917.
In Early uses and etymology of blotto (American Speech – 2009), John Considine notes that, after its first attestation in July 1917, blotto can be found eight more times in texts from or referring to the next 18 months, all (with one exception) connected with British military service on the Western Front. In one text, it is spelt blotteau, in another blotteaux, as if the authors had heard the word and supposed it to be a borrowing from French. According to Considine:
The distribution in time and locality of these early attestations suggests strongly that the word was coined in France, by British soldiers, in or very shortly before the first half of 1917.
In addition to the one dating from 1916, I have found six early instances of blotto and blotteau which are not included in John Considine’s article. The first one is from “Shell Shock”: Story of a resourceful sergeant, set on the Western Front, published in the Daily Record (Lanarkshire, Scotland) of 9th August 1917:
Sergeant Gracie, relaxing in an estaminet, […] had done himself pretty well with wine, coffee, cognac, and was feeling splendid. […] He ordered some cherry brandy to be put into a small bottle which he tucked into his breast pocket.
[…] The night was chilly, and as the little party entered the communication trench the sergeant, casting prudence to the winds, took a long pull and a strong pull at his cherry brandy flask. “Encore cherry brandy,” he said as he repeated the operation a little further on.
[…] The waiting captain viewed with astonishment a sergeant who made frantic efforts to come to the salute, but merely wobbled over feebly against the side of the trench. He looked at the non-com. for a moment, then muttered, “Why the sergeant’s absolutely blotto.”
In In England Now! A weekly letter from “Blanche”, published in The Bystander (London) of 5th September 1917, blotto appeared neither in a military context nor as a military word:
Oh to be a grocer, or a milkman, or a butcher, or a baker, or a candlestickmaker, or anything of that sort now that war is here! Some of them, they say, have made enough out of the wretched public in these last three years never to sand another ounce of sugar again, and to live the rest of their honourable and patriotic lives, if they want to, tanked to the wide, opulently oiled, and beautifully blotto on the best Bollinger in ancient manor-houses, or Mayfair flats, or historic Scottish castles, moats, dungeons, battlements, portcullises, pipers, porridge, tartans, armour, tapestries, painted ancestors, etc., etc., all complete.
In The British Expeditionary Wags, published in The Sphere (London) of 8th December 1917, the English author Edward Verrall Lucas (1868-1938) cited what he called “an Old Testament version of how Intha exceeded his leave” from The B.E.F. Times, the trench magazine of the British Expeditionary Force:
And it came to pass that Intha took the parchment and travelled unto Blitee [= Blighty] and sojourned there for the space of ten days. Now there was much wine there. And it came to pass that Intha had a great feast before returning unto his captain, and he drank of the wine until he got “Blotto,” which, being interpreted, means “possessed of an evil spirit,” and he returned not. And it came to pass that Windup, the King’s captain, did send two men of his bodyguard to fetch Intha. And they brought him. And Windup, the captain, said unto him, “Wherefore didst thou not return unto me, but sojourned in Blitee for many days?” And Intha answered him and said, “Lord, I was sick” (and in this he spake the truth).
In The Annals of Artemas, published in The Sketch (London) of 14th August 1918, Arthur Telford Mason (= Artemas, that is to say, Arthur Telford Mason) described “the unavoidable consequences of the War”:
The plight of the drinkers was, perhaps, worst of all.
Hemmed in on all sides by rules and restrictions, it was only by exercising the greatest cunning that liquid nourishment could be obtained in anything like sufficient quantities to do more than create a thirst.
The scarcity of lubricating material was relieved to an extent through the timely action of the publicans, who, by the admixture of pure spring water with anything alcoholic, increased their resources most noticeably.
The obstacles in the way of getting absolutely blotto, however, were almost insurmountable.
An early instance of the form blotteau is from chapter 8 of The Gallant Forty-Fiver, a humorous novel by the British author Reginald Arkell (1882-1959), published in The Bystander (London) of 25th December 1918. After qualifying for a commission and completing his formation at a Cambridge Cadet School, the narrator has reported to a reserve battalion, which has formed an Officers’ Class. The following passage takes place during “guest night”; both Maltravers and Baxe are officers who never drink alcohol:
Maltravers is very fond of sweet things—particularly trifle; and we who knew his weakness had managed a little treat for him.
Into one dish of trifle (specially reserved for Maltravers), we had poured half a bottle of sherry, a tumbler of Martell’s “three star,” and a wine glass of Benedictine. The trifle became a tipsy cake. A dash of cherry brandy and a soupçon of Chartreuse made it still more tipsy. Never was so dissolute a dish.
We sat with eyes glued on Maltravers, and the way he tucked into that tipsy trifle was a sight for the gods. He was well into his second helping before some of us had got started. Aided and abetted by his neighbours, he finished the dish single-handed. Considered as a feat of endurance it was wonderful. As a doping exhibition it was a failure. Maltravers was more gloomy than usual, but that was all.
“Mercy on us,” said someone, “that fool of a waiter must have mixed up the dishes. Maltravers has merely over-eaten himself and little Baxe is blotteau!”
[…] Little Baxe had risen steadily—too steadily. He grasped the table-cloth firmly in the right hand. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “I will recite you a little thing of my own composition.”
I have found no biographical information about Reginald Arkell, so that I do not know how he came to know the word blotteau. There is no connection whatsoever with the Western Front in the novel: it is entirely set in southern England and none of its characters is presented as having served abroad.
The second early occurrence of blotteau that I have found is from The Subaltern’s Joke, published in the Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) of 11th February 1919, reprinted from the English magazine London Opinion; the author of this story, which is set on the Western Front, considers blotteau at the confluence of British English and French, and associates it with blotting-paper; the story thus begins:
Captain Williams and Mr. Milne came along the road toward the rest camp together. They were quite steady, quite sedate. Ah, you get a fine dinner for five francs at the “Cafe de L’Alliance” in ——, you know the place! But they were blotteau.
A delightful expression, this “blotteau.” It is one of those Franco-British mixtures that tell volumes in a single word. Take two French beers, three glasses of Burgundy, and one stiff whisky, and you will probably feel blotteau. Blotting-paper well soaked, limp and restful and comfortable, that is what you should feel like. But not drunk, never drunk. You must retain your faculties.
“I will recite you a little thing”
illustration by Wilton Williams for The Gallant Forty-Fiver
from The Bystander – 25th December 1918
In the early 20th century, in Paris at least, small deliveries were often made with tricycles fitted with a box called triporteurs (the word triporteur, first recorded in 1900, is from tricycle and porteur, carrier).
They were so notoriously erratically managed that in 1903 the annual triporteur race was banned from the département of the Seine because of the danger it presented; in its 7th-February issue, the French sports magazine La Vie au grand air (Life in the open air) mentioned this decision:
(original text below)
When, therefore, an ingenious manufacturer had the idea of putting a box on an ordinary tricycle, thus benefiting from the advantages of cycling — pneumatic tyres, ball-bearings, easy steering — to build a machine for rapid and inexpensive delivery, when the success of the triporteur, an appropriate name which quickly caught on, began and became apparent nearly four years ago, the idea of organising a race for triporteurs was bound to come to somebody.
And as our colleagues in the sports dailies try hard to break the winter monotony by competitions of all kinds, it was of course one of them, l’Auto, who took up the idea, and for three years we have had an annual triporteur championship.
This year there was a small incident: the prefect of police had ranked the triporteur race among the bicycle races prohibited throughout the whole département of the Seine.
But listen to the dialogue which thus began this year between Mr. Lépine and the editor of l’Auto charged with the organisation of the race.
– Monsieur le Préfet, I come to ask you for the traditional authorisation for our triporteur competition between Paris and Versailles. Besides, I will point out that you granted it to us in 1901 and 1902.
– Impossible. A thousand apologies!
– No, no! No more races.
– But it is a competition for commercial machines, going at a necessarily moderate speed…
– You must be joking!
– But of course, since every box contains 40 kilograms of sand…
– Which turn the triporteur into a cannonball on downward slopes.
The French novelist Roger Martin du Gard (1881-1958) also evoked this danger in the first part of Les Thibault, published in 1922:
It was a little girl who went and met Mr Jules every day. Had she tried to cross the rue de Rivoli, realising that tonight Mr Jules was not arriving? A delivery triporteur had knocked her down and run over her body.
Il s’agissait d’une petite fille qui venait tous les jours au-devant de M. Jules. Avait-elle voulu traverser la rue de Rivoli, voyant que ce soir M. Jules n’arrivait pas ? Un triporteur de livraison l’avait renversée et lui avait passé sur le corps.
From the first decade of the 20th century onwards, a well-known manufacturer of triporteurs was the company Blotto frères, 5 rue Charlot, Paris (3e arrondissement). So well-known was this firm that, in L’Éléphant blanc (1970), set in the period from 1909 to 1914, the French author Henri Troyat (1911-2007), whose novels were always well-researched, wrote:
Without thinking Vissarion absorbs garish advertisements for Bière du Lion, Chocolat Menier or Blotto brothers’ triporteurs.
Machinalement Vissarion absorbe des réclames aux couleurs criardes pour la « Bière du Lion », le « Chocolat Menier » ou les triporteurs « Blotto frères ».
John Considine concludes the above-mentioned article by saying that there is
a strong association between the word blotto and erratic or even dangerous behavior: the person who is blotto is like a badly managed triporteur, a public menace, weaving about and blundering into people. It is an association which would have presented itself to British soldiers serving in France in the First World War and encountering Blotto triporteurs for the first time, perhaps particularly when on leave in Paris […].
This does not make English blot(ted) irrelevant to the first element of blotto. What it suggests is that the word may have caught on because of the coincidence of several elements. The word blotto might be associated with unsteady or unpredictable motion through the streets. Its form (two syllables, ending in -o) was like that of a number of slang words which were being used by soldiers already. Its first element could be interpreted as having something to do with the absorbent properties of blotting paper, or with failure of memory, or perhaps with the sense of obliteration subsequently rediscovered in the lexical item wiped out; these interpretations explain why the found word blotto should have become popular, but need not be invoked to explain its formation in the first place. An etymology for blotto might therefore read […] something like “Perhaps from the name of Blotto Frères, manufacturers of a range of three-wheeled delivery vehicles sometimes associated with erratic and dangerous motion, reinforced by blot (cf. wiped out s.v. wiped) and -o as in ammo.”
In my opinion, the flaw in the ingenious theory put forward by John Considine is that in the texts, dating back to the period from 1916 to 1919, where the British-English adjective blotto first appeared, neither Blotto triporteurs (or other triporteurs for that matter) nor “erratic or even dangerous behavior” are mentioned or even alluded to. Additionally, the spellings blotteau and blotteaux merely indicate that the word was originally associated with France, where it was presumably coined; it is impossible to validate John Considine’s hypothesis, according to which it is possible that the persons who first used those spellings “knew that blotto ‘drunk’ was from a French proper name but were unsure how that name was spelled”.
I have found an instance of blotto, predating Ward Muir’s book, used in the sense worn out, wiped out, in “an extract from a letter written by a young officer on the Western front”, published in The Globe (London) of 4th December 1916:
Was sent here a few hours before the battalion as billeting officer; had a terrific rush round empty houses and barns, got everyone in by 1 a.m. this morning, and then to sleep; just realised, when everything had been finished, that I was absolutely “blotto,” or “done up.” It is a fine feeling if, and when, one has finished and one can turn in. I turned in about 1 a.m., and didn’t wake again until nearly 12 noon.
I have also found an instance in which blotto has an obscure meaning. The Daily Mirror (London) of 28th December 1918 published Young couples in restaurants: Are they bored with one another?, in which Constance Ingram deplores young married couples’ silence at the dinner table:
It is a mistake to be monosyllabic. If a remark is made to you, you must add to the “yes” or “no” of your reply another remark emanating from your own genius. Say something. Give her the time of day. Don’t sit gasping like a fish. If she vouchsafes to say: “Old thing, don’t you think Mick Biffin’s positively dinky in Rash-Dash?” don’t let your answer be “Yes” alone.
“What was Cambrai like when you got into it?”
“Not really?” “Yes.”
That sort of thing won’t do. I defy the most ardent love to hold out against it.
This only piece of evidence for the use of the word before 1919 by anyone unconnected with British military service on the Western Front occurs in While Paris Laughed, a collection of short stories written in 1918 by the English novelist Leonard Merrick (1864-1939), who had moved from London to Paris in 1917. One of these short stories features a French character called Monsieur Blotto, who has nothing to do with drink at all: he is the proprietor of a provincial newspaper, anxious to meet Parisian literary and dramatic celebrities. The visibility of Blotto Frères triporteurs in Paris may explain why the author picked the word up as the name of a character.
Lorsque, donc, un industriel ingénieux eut eu l’idée de mettre une caisse sur un tricycle ordinaire, profitant ainsi des avantages du cyclisme — pneumatiques, roulements à billes, direction aisée — pour construire une machine de livraison rapide et peu coûteuse, lorsque le succès du triporteur, nom tout indiqué qui se généralisa vite, commença et se dessina voici bientôt quatre ans, l’idée devait forcément venir à quelqu’un d’organiser une course de triporteurs.
Et comme nos confrères sportifs quotidiens s’ingénient à rompre la monotonie hivernale par des concours de toute nature, ce fut naturellement l’un d’eux, l’Auto, qui fit sienne cette idée, et depuis trois ans nous avons chaque année un championnat de triporteurs.
Cette année il y eut un petit incident : le Préfet de police avait rangé la course de triporteurs parmi les courses de bicyclettes interdites sur toute l’étendue du département de la Seine.
Ecoutez plutôt le dialogue qui s’engagea cette année entre M. Lépine et le rédacteur de l’Auto chargé de l’organisation de la course.
– Monsieur le Préfet, je viens vous demander l’autorisation classique pour notre concours de triporteurs entre Paris et Versailles. Je vous ferai du reste remarquer que vous nous l’avez accordée en 1901 et 1902.
– Impossible. Mille regrets !
– Non, non ! Plus de courses.
– Mais c’est un concours de machines commerciales, roulant à une allure forcément très sage…
– Parlons-en !
– Mais oui, puisque chaque caisse contient 40 kilos de sable…
– Qui font du triporteur un boulet de canon dans les descentes.
Louis Lépine (1846-1933) was a lawyer, politician and inventor. He is best remembered for creating a competition for inventors, known as the Concours Lépine, which continues to be held annually to this day.