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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

binge-watching

(2010’s | “overindulging,” “spending too much time in front of the TV”)

A binge has always had something disreputable about it, and the mixture of pride and shame with which binge-watchers confess their latest debauchery proves that it still does — it’s been but a year since the Washington Post declared binge-watching socially acceptable. A word that goes back to the nineteenth century, “binge” means the same thing as “spree.” A prolonged drunk, spending too much money in a short period of time, that sort of thing. It always meant excess. People started talking about “binge eating” and “binge drinking” in the seventies and eighties, probably the first time “binge” was used as an adjective in any widespread way. There was a rough equivalent to binge-watching in my youth, but we named the actor rather than the activity: couch potato (still in use, though it need not have anything to do with television any more). Couch potatoes’ preferred verb was “view,” anyway. Some people do say “binge-viewing,” though it is less common, at least in the States.

What is this thing called “binge-watching”? One psychologist notes that all it really means is “spending a longer time than normal watching television. . . . Netflix conducted a survey in 2014 where viewers defined binge watching as viewing between two to six episodes of a show in one sitting.” The phrase does conjure up red-eyed, addled viewers losing entire weekends to the new season of their favorite Netflix series, but does prolonged viewing become “binge-watching” only when it is obviously harmful? According to my limited research, the consensus answer is no; “binge-watching” may just denote a harmless way to spend a few stray hours. But the dubious heritage of the word “binge” will make that innocuousness hard to keep up.

The earliest unmistakable instance of “binge watching” in LexisNexis comes from Australia in 2006, and it trickled into American English shortly thereafter. Before the advent of home video recording, such a thing wasn’t really possible, and it didn’t become feasible until the practice of issuing entire seasons of television programs on DVD became prevalent — archaic as that seems in the days of Netflix and Hulu and lots of hipper streaming services I’ve never heard of. In my younger days, a complete retrospective of a certain director’s films, say, might have been called a marathon, or a festival, or maybe just a complete retrospective. (You come across expressions like “Game of Thrones marathon” even today.) In the nineties, it was possible to buy complete runs of at least a few television series on VHS, but the term did not arise then. So maybe this is a millennial thing: the idea that watching hours and hours of your favorite show, and dropping everything to do it, is a worthy activity. Not that you have to be a millennial. And now, new series must be written with an eye to the preferences of binge-watchers.

When I was in college, “Wheel of Fortune” turned the 1968 song “I’m a Girl Watcher” into an advertisement for itself. Then “Baywatch” was all the rage. The act of watching seems to have become linked ever more suffocatingly with television in the seventy years we have been groveling before the tube — I guess we have to call it “the screen” now, since there’s no tube any more, unless your television set is as old as mine. After “binge-watching” settled into our vocabulary, “hate-watching” arrived as well, meaning simply “binge-watching a show you hate,” with the implication that it’s the sort of show you love to hate, at least according to one writer. Perhaps inevitably, “purge watching” has sprung up, meaning “hate-watching” with less passion, more out of a desire to get the offending show over with than to enjoy noting how awful it is. Who knows what other “watch”-words will come?

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