This can mean slap-happy, dazed, or fatigued, the way a boxer might feel after receiving multiple blows. It can also mean a person (especially a boxer) having cerebral concussion caused by repeated blows to the head and consequently exhibiting unsteadiness of gait, hand tremors, slow muscular movement, hesitant speech, and dulled mentality.
‘Punch-drunk’ originated in the boxing ring. So did ‘slap-happy,’ which Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says started with boxing in the 1930s and described someone whose brain was scrambled from fighting in the ring.
The earliest published reference for ‘punch drunk’ in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from a 1912 issue of a Wisconsin newspaper, the Sheboygan Press: “Punch-drunk through the first round, and floundering around like a great helpless calf, his mouth and nose shedding blood in a thick stream.”
The expression soon came to be used for confused behavior outside the ring. Here’s a citation from a 1925 issue of The American Mercury magazine: “The tattered standard is thrust into the broken hands of a punch-drunk politician.”
Physicians soon got in on the act, too. The Journal of the American Medical Association, in 1928, said, “The early symptoms of punch-drunk usually appear in the extremities.”
In more formal language, dementia pugilistica (DP) is a type of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease with features of dementia. DP may affect any boxer, wrestler, or athlete in other sports who suffers concussion. It is also called boxer’s dementia, pugilistic dementia, and punch-drunk syndrome.
The condition is caused by repeated concussive and sub-concussive blows, or both. Because of the concern that boxing may cause DP, some medical professionals wish to ban the sport. Such a ban has been called for since the 1950s. Symptoms of DP develop progressively over a long period, with the average time of onset being about 12 to 16 years after the start of a career in boxing. The condition may affect around 15% to 20% of professional boxers.
The condition manifests as dementia, or declining mental ability, problems with memory, dizzy spells or lack of balance to the point of not being able to walk under one’s own power for a short time and or Parkinsonism, or tremors and lack of coordination. It can also cause speech problems and an unsteady gait. Those who suffer DP may be prone to inappropriate or explosive behavior and may display pathological jealousy or paranoia.
Dementia pugilistica frequently goes undiagnosed, usually because it won’t cause symptoms for many years. It’s often mistakenly ascribed to old age or Alzheimer’s disease.
You know, on second thought, I won’t take up boxing as a career after all.