I’m trying to determine the visual expression of ‘imbibing,’ with the presumption it describes a particular attitude or energy in the act of drinking. (I make this presumption because it gives reason for the word to exist. If it were functionally no different to the word ‘drinking,’ I surmise its only raison d’etre is to give authors a means to show off.)

The Oxford dictionary tells me it means ‘To drink (alcohol)’, and it provides synonyms including quaff, guzzle, gulp, slurp, swig, and chug. This gives me a picture of ‘imbibing’ as drinking with reckless abandon; an urgent dedication one has when they’re seeking to get to the loosened side of cognition as quickly as possible.

But I encountered in my reading (a fiction novel), a sedate scientist who had been ‘drawn by the blush of dawn to imbibe tea on the deck.’ This doesn’t gel with the above impression I surmised from Oxford. From the novel’s usage, I imagine the man’s ‘imbibing’ to be measured and purposeful; he’d taste the tea one small sip at a time, a quiet satisfied exhale following each swallow, before his experience repeated.

One does not tend to drink a cup of tea in the same way they drink a bottle of beer. When is it contextually proper to use the term ‘imbibe’?

  • Imbibe in the sense of soak oneself could have come post-C16. There's nothing more to it.
    – Kris
    Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 13:33
  • ... that I could find.
    – Kris
    Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 13:39
  • 1
    As medica says, it's simply a fancy way to say "drink". Words in English don't need a "reason" to exist.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 13:43
  • 3
    @Kris - But English words generally have only a very loose connection to their etymology.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 13:49
  • 1
    In the above sentence, "imbibe" helps establish a mood of relaxed elegance.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 15:43

2 Answers 2


Per the Random house dictionary:

Drink, imbibe, sip refer to taking liquids into the mouth. They are also used figuratively in the sense of taking in something through the mind or the senses. Drink is the general word: to drink coffee; to drink in the music. Imbibe is a more formal word, used most often in a figurative sense but also in reference to liquids, esp. alcohol: to imbibe culture; to imbibe with discretion. Sip implies drinking little by little: to sip a soda; to sip the words of Shakespeare.

I have never imagined imbibe as more than a 'fancy' or fanciful way to say drink.

  • Well, that's...disappointing. But informative, so I thank you. I'll just file 'imbibe' in my drawer of words that I'll never choose to use in conversation, unless I'm talking about what irritates me.
    – Eve
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 6:58

Perhaps, in your example of the scientist, the word imbibe is used (rather than drink) simply because it is more unusual, and, therefore, gives an emphasis to his actions - as if he was somehow celebrating or ritualizing the rising of the sun.

  • We can use "comments" to post our opinions.
    – Kris
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 6:49
  • Sorry, I thought I was answering the question.
    – Oldbag
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 10:29

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