Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Keeping a Watch on "Binge-Watching"

The eagerly anticipated final season of "Breaking Bad" has led to a lot of viewers catching up on past episodes marathon-style. For my latest Wall Street Journal column, I use this moment of mass-media consumption to dive into the history of "binge-watching."

It all starts with binge, which first shows up in English dialect dictionaries in the mid-19th century. A word for soaking casks or other wooden vessels to keep them from leaking became a metaphor for "getting soaked" or excessive drinking. Here is the relevant entry in Anne Elizabeth Baker's Glossary of Northamptonshire Words and Phrases (1854):

BINGE. This word primarily signifies the act of soaking, and is applied substantively to persons, and adjectively and verbally to things. A man goes to the alehouse to get a good binge, or to binge himself. A heavy rain is a good bingeing shower: but the most general and frequent application of the term is to the soaking of tubs or wooden vessels to prevent leaking, when the chimes have become separated from dryness and disuse. "Put the tubs to binge, ready for the wash." According to D. Jennings, in Somersetshire, to Binge is to remain long in drinking; to drink to excess.

By the time Albert Barrère and Charles Godfrey Leland published their Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant in 1897, it was no longer just a provincial expression, having already spread to Oxford (where one imagines student drinkers were putting the term to good use):

Binge (Oxford), a big drinking bout. To binge is a provincialism for to soak a vessel in water to prevent its leaking. It is also a nautical term meaning to rinse a cask. This word seems to be connected with bung, the orifice in the bilge of a cask, through which it is filled.

In the twentieth century, the noun and verb binge spread quickly on both sides of the Atlantic, and it eventually was pressed into service for clinical use to describe alcoholic overindulgence. The Oxford English Dictionary records binge-drinker from 1946, and binge-drinking can be found a decade later. Meanwhile, binge got extended to other kinds of excessive consumption, particularly food. The OED traces eating binge to 1937, and the clinician's diagnosis of binge-drinking was mirrored by binge-eating by 1959.

With binge-eating achieving greater prominence in the 1980s thanks to increased awareness of bulimia and related eating disorders, it's not surprising that by the late '90s it could serve as a model for TV consumption, swapping out eating for viewing or watching. The earliest examples that I dug up for binge-watching come from Usenet discussions among fans of "The X-Files." On a New England newsgroup, one fan put out a call for videotapes of the show in 1996:

I've just become hooked on the X-Files, so I'm a little behind... Does anyone by ANY chance have tapes of this show back to season 1 they'd be willing to lend me so I can effectively catch up? I'd be more than happy to travel out to wherever to get them and then bring them back (actually there are three of us who all got hooked at the same time, so I'd predict that there'd be some MASSIVE binge watching right away! :-)
—Bob Donahue, ne.general, Feb. 9, 1996

Two years later, binge-watching had already spawned the back-formation binge-watch in the "X-Files" community, as in this post presenting a mock diagnosis of addiction to the show:

Do you ever binge watch (marathon)?
—GregSerl, alt.tv.x-files.analysis, Dec. 20, 1998

It would take another five years before binge-watching got picked up by mainstream media commentators, and by that time viewers could watch their favorite TV shows on DVD compilations, allowing for more intensive binges. This 2003 article reviews a DVD set of the animated show "Family Guy":

While binge-watching an entire season's worth of a series in a couple of sittings can lead to such revelations as network meddling (cough, cough, Sports Night), Family Guy has the opposite effect.
—Brill Bundy, Tribune Media Services, Apr. 18, 2003

Fast-forward another decade, and we're living in a golden age of binge-watching, as streaming video services like Netflix and Hulu Plus replace DVDs as the binger's medium of choice. If you get caught up in "Breaking Bad" (or any number of other bingeable shows), good luck extracting yourself. Just don't end up like the "Battlestar Galactica" binge-watchers from "Portlandia."

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.