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I've been reading a book by Sue Grafton titled "W is for Wasted" and have encountered a phrase "to pickle the average adult"

I have looked up the meaning of the verb and that's what the Oxford Dictionary provided me with:

1) preserve (food or other perishable items) in vinegar or brine

2) immerse (a metal object) in an acid or other chemical solution for cleaning

However, I still don't understand the meaning of the phrase.

he'd enjoyed alcohol in sufficient quantities to pickle the average adult

I guess it's a North American slang or something.

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An aside: there's still another meaning of "pickle" such as in the phrase "he was in quite a pickle!", where a pickle is a difficult or pressuring situation. – mbomb007 Mar 14 at 19:54
    
The dictionary entry for "pickle" was unhelpful, but oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/pickled (meaning 2) explains your sentence. – alephzero Mar 14 at 20:07
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To put it simply, to be "pickled" is to be drunk. (This is different from the idiom "quite a pickle", which means in a bad situation of some sort.) – Hot Licks Mar 15 at 2:57
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The pickle is such a versatile food. – John Clifford Mar 15 at 7:23
up vote 35 down vote accepted

It is slang, and somewhat relies on one knowing that you can preserve things in ethanol, which is the pure form of alcohol (what actually happens is that alcohol is broken down by the liver and converted to acetaldehyde, which is a close relative of formaldehyde (which I'm sure you know is used in embalming). but that's not so much a useful part of the answer as some interesting biochemistry waffle).

In this context, "pickle" is being used in its definition of

preserve (food or other perishable items) in vinegar or brine

and a link is being made between the preservation of food with vinegar, and a human consuming so much alcohol that the resulting acetaldehyde formation would preserve them the same way.

I should point out that the way your sample phrase is worded would imply exaggeration of the amount consumed; it's not literally saying that they've consumed a sufficient quantity to cause that. (as WS2 pointed out, "being pickled" is used as hyperbole for "intoxicated")

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Though I appreciate that you know the biochemistry, most people would not know it has anything to do with acetaldehyde. I think you can preserve things in ethanol as well. +1 btw. – medica Mar 14 at 15:13
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Not a problem; I love the science. :) – medica Mar 14 at 15:15
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+1, and I am floored to have looked in six different dictionaries and not once found the definition "severely intoxicated, typically by excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages." We must petition these dictionary authorities immediately!!! I've been hearing it my entire life. I want a brew, just like the brew, that pickled dear old Dad. It was a tasty brew, and the only brew, that Daddy ever had. – cobaltduck Mar 14 at 15:30
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@cobaltduck Hey, if they can get "twerk" added to the dictionary, we've got this one in the bag. – John Clifford Mar 14 at 15:32
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@cobaltduck: There are a huge number of words that are/have been used as synonyms for "intoxicated". That's a few dozen there in the OxfordDictionaries link, most of which (incl. pickled) have a link to that specific term in their dictionary. But these sort of words are constantly being turned over, so many people today would think it's more than a bit "dated" to still be using pickled. – FumbleFingers Mar 14 at 16:52

To Pickle does usually mean to preserve with vinegar or acid. But alcohol is a preservative too, and the term pickling can be used, certainly in British English, to refer to the process of preserving in alcohol.

Pickling usually refers to the process of fermenting a food in salty brine. However, another kind of food preservation can involve simply soaking food in a solution that keeps it from spoiling. Alcohol, including vodka, is one liquid you can use. [From eHow's article on the subject of pickling in vodka]

So the usage above is (somewhat humorously) suggesting that the person in question had drunk so much alcohol he could have preserved himself permanently in it.

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As a reader of Sue Grafton I feel certain that the usage she intended you to understand is: "drunk (on alcohol)." "Pickled" is a common slang term (or was) for "drunk:"

2. Slang. drunk; intoxicated.

The specific sentence you reference is meant to convey that the person described has a prodigious appetite for alcohol, and consumes it in quantities the average person would find debilitating.

The references to using alcohol as a food preservative are best understood as the basis for this slang expression.

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Far from an average person, but Lord Nelson's body was pickled in brandy to preserve it on the return trip to England, following his death at the battle of Trafalgar. When the cask was opened it contained his body, but no brandy. Sailor's had drained the liquid content and drank it. So to be pickled in alcohol has a literal, historical context. Hence the quote is hyperbole, as for a single person to consume the amount of alcohol required to literally pickle a person, in a reasonable period of time, would be impossible.

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I so desperately want this story to be true; do you have a citation? – rob Mar 15 at 17:50
    
Wikipedia has more details on the Lord Nelson anecdote. – Aner Mar 15 at 19:55
    
I would also add that drunk is a very generic term that often relies on intonation to add context to its usage. Hence we have synonyms such as pickled, which to me, implies someone is pleasantly drunk, quiet and nonthreatening. – Flippsie Mar 16 at 13:41

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