In Australian English there has always been a distinction between "pissed" (intoxicated) and "pissed off" (angry, irritated).

I've noticed a trend towards the American usage where "he was really pissed" is now much more likely to mean the latter.

I'm aware of the futility of resisting the natural evolution of language, particulary the juggernaut of American language imperialism via films and TV, but it seems a shame that "I did it because I was pissed" is now ambiguous.

Is this a trend in other English speaking countries where the Australian usage was common?

7 Answers 7


Harold Wentworth & Stuart Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang, first edition (1960) has this entry for pissed off:

pissed off {taboo} Angry; enraged; disgusted; completely and thoroughly exhausted; fed up; unhappy; forlorn. One of several such terms very widely used by Armed Forces in W.W.II and carried into civilian life afterward. Though still taboo, this term has passed into sophisticated use among the culturally elite or pseudo-elite.

This edition of Wentworth & Flexner has no entry for pissed in the sense of drunk.

Robert Chapman & Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995) shows some evolution in the variant wordings used:

pissed off adj phr (Variations: pissed or p'd or peed off or po'd) Angry; profoundly annoyed; indignant: [examples omitted]

This edition of Chapman & Kipfer has no entry for pissed in the sense of drunk, either.

I remember that people began shortening pissed off to pissed (still with the meaning "angry") during the middle 1970s, because I had a roommate in college at that time who used to counsel anyone who confessed to being "pissed off" that "It's better to be pissed off than pissed on." He told me that the truncated form pissed had ruined the fine edge of his wise saying.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Eric Partridge, Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, first edition (1937) reports a very different meaning of piss off:

piss off. To depart, esp. to depart quickly : low : late C. 19–20.

And for "pissed," the same edition of Partridge has this:

pissed or pissed-up. (Very) drunk : low, and military : C. 20.

As of the fifth edition of Partridge (1961), the dictionary still had no entry for pissed or pissed off in the sense of "angry." However the eighth edition (1984) has these additions:

piss off, v.i. To depart, esp. to depart quickly (often as an imperative: piss off!, go away!): low: late C.19–20. ... —2. V.t. To irritate, annoy, often with connotation of either malaise or disgust: since late 1940s. [Example omitted.] Hence pissed off.


pissed off. Disgruntled, 'fed up'; very much displeased (with someone or something): since late 1940s, Services; in 1970s very common among students.

It thus appears that U.S. English slang and British English slang ran on separate tracks for a long time, but that both now acknowledge and use the "angry" sense of pissed off. Further, I'm quite familiar (conversationally) with pissed in the sense of "drunk," so that meaning of the term must have become at least somewhat naturalized in parts of the United States in the past two decades.


In Australian English there has always been a distinction between "pissed" (intoxicated) and "pissed off" (angry, irritated).

This is exactly the same as the British usage.

I've noticed a trend towards the American usage where "he was really pissed" is now much more likely to mean the latter.

I have not noticed that in the UK.

  • I have noticed this in the UK - but then many of my friends associate a lot with people from the US, so this may or may not be typical :-)
    – psmears
    Commented Jan 16, 2011 at 16:41
  • I blame all the imported American TV :p
    – user3490
    Commented Feb 4, 2012 at 20:26

Being an American, I can safely say that both are used quite often to mean the same thing: angry or irritated. "I was so pissed when he spilled coffee on my new sweater" or "it really pisses me off when she talks down to me" would be understood in America as the speaker being angry. As far as I know, we never use pissed or pissed off to mean intoxicated.

Also, it is not common to use the imperative/insult (?) piss off in America, but if you were to use it you would be quite well-understood. :)

  • 1
    The term "pissed off" is never used to mean "drunk" anywhere in the English-speaking world. Although I don't used "pissed" to mean drunk, I dislike the use of the term to mean "annoyed" as it lacks the emphasis of "pissed off". Like other American English expressions, it may have its origins in German, which uses the verb anpissen (literally "onpiss") of which the past tense is angepisst, literally "onpissed". As it's a separable verb in German, you'd say er pisst mich an (literally "he pisses me on") although not even Americans would say that in English.
    – user114331
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 18:02

In New Zealand, that distinction still exists quite strongly. But, like you, I have heard a few people use "pissed" to mean annoyed, but the vast majority of the time, I have only heard it in the sense of being intoxicated.

I wouldn't worry too much about it though. There are so many words in English that mean "drunk" that it wouldn't cause too much to be lost. But yes, it is a little bit of a shame. But, we cannot stop the juggernaut that is the progression (for good or for bad) of the English language.

  • 4
    Actually, I wasn't lamenting the loss of the usage so much as the ambiguity in the interim. Each time I hear someone use the expression now there is momentary glitch while I interpret the context. I really don't think there's much that is good or bad either way, just a period where it doesn't sound right for the people who grew up with the original usage.
    – ianjs
    Commented Aug 15, 2010 at 13:04
  • Yes. For me, good = better understanding between people, bad = worse understanding between people. How that understanding is achieved, I don't really care :-) Commented Aug 16, 2010 at 0:51

In my experience in (western) Canada the common use tends to be pissed for drunk and pissed-off for angry/frustrated/irritated.

Surprisingly given the proximity and cultural pressure of the US the he/she was pissed [angry] isn't heard all that often. Americans visiting Canada are sometimes stumped by Canadians willingness to 'get pissed' but they catch on.

Although the expression has mostly disappeared we used to hear/say 'pissed to the gills' for drunk.


In Australia, we say 'pissed off' and 'pissed' interchangeably when someone or something has 'given us the shits'. For instance, 'you're being a jerk and now I'm really pissed'. This usage is not uncommon and sounds very natural however we do probably use 'pissed off' more - especially the older generation.

Of course we also used 'pissed' as 'drunk' but I just wanted to point out that the distinction described in the question does not exist. Interestingly, someone has pointed out that the distinction does exist in New Zealand but in Australia 'pissed' can be used in either context.

  • Yes, I agree the distinction has almost vanished in Australia, hence my curiosity over whether this wa an international trend.
    – ianjs
    Commented Mar 23, 2013 at 11:57

The word "pissed" and the phrase "pissed off" are slang that actually refers to the radiator caps of automobiles, particularly those dating back before the 1940s, and what would happen when their engines overheated. Back then, the radiator was basically the front grill of a car or truck and the hood ornament adorning the top of it was actually the radiator cap. When an engine would overheat, the steam pressure built up in the radior would blow the cap off, making a "psssssssd" sound...hence the phrase "pissed off".

Its easy to see how this phrase can be related to anger...that one could get so "hot" with anger that he/she gets "pissed off" or "now I'm pissed." I'm from the States, so that is how I'm most familiar with it.

As for the word "pissed" being related to being drunk, I can only assume 2 things: 1) that it refers to how a person can get flushed/warm when drinking...drunk = hot = pissed... or 2) that it refers to how being drunk means that you're impaired...much like how a blown radiator impairs an automobile.

  • Do you have any references for this answer?
    – TecBrat
    Commented Apr 3, 2016 at 6:12
  • 2
    Very, very dubious answer.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Apr 3, 2016 at 6:54
  • If you drink copious amounts of liquid the urge to urinate (piss) is mighty strong, I think that why "to be pissed" means "to be drunk", and drunks can also lose control of their bladder more easily.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 3, 2016 at 11:39
  • Yes, I agree with Sven. Citation needed.
    – ianjs
    Commented Apr 4, 2016 at 22:41

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