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Pronounced /ˌiːθərˈəʊmeɪnɪæk/Help with pronunciation

An etheromaniac is addicted to ether as an intoxicant. Some have been known to inhale it, but true etheromaniacs drank it. The imbibing of ether was a widespread practice in parts of Ireland during the nineteenth century. Some contemporary reports point to a temperance campaign by Father Theobald Mathew in 1838 for starting it, while others say it was an unintended result of a crackdown by the authorities at that time on the illegal brewing of poteen, a spirit made from potatoes.

The effects of ether were like those of alcohol, but the drinker passed through the stages of intoxication to insensibility much more quickly. He also sobered up after only a few minutes with no hangover. One problem with drinking ether was that it turns into a gas at body temperature. To get around this, the usual technique was to drink a glass of cold water followed by a shot of ether. The water cooled the mouth and throat sufficiently to get the ether into the stomach in liquid form. A frequent side effect was violent belching of flammable gas. Since houses were lit by naked flames, ether drinkers sometimes set themselves and others alight.

The practice was etheromania and drinkers were sometimes described as etherists and etheromanes as well as etheromaniacs. The Journal of the American Medical Association in 1891 wrote of women in rural communities in Ireland holding ether bees.

Etheromania was also recorded from Norway, Russia, Italy, France, parts of the USA, and Britain — an article in the Nebraska State Journal in 1897 said, “In London the keepers of the various squares and parks often find under the trees empty vials labelled ‘ether’ that have been thrown there by the maniacs who quit their homes in order to indulge their favorite passion at their ease”.

The practice died out in the 1890s in Ireland after the government reclassified ether as a poison that could be sold by registered pharmacists only.

[Thanks to Ian Simmons, whose letter to the New Scientist alerted me to this astonishing practice and its vocabulary.]

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 9 Sep. 2006

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 9 September 2006.