Ryan Little was feeling a little tipsy one recent night. He decided to call "this girl Diane" he knew from college.
Unfortunately, his fingers were also a bit woozy as they walked across the cell phone keys.
When his call went through, he started talking, flirtatiously and without stopping, for a full four minutes. Unfortunately, it wasn't Diane on the other end.
"I hit my Dad's number instead," the Baltimore resident said.
Increasingly common with the proliferation of cell phones and their free midnight minutes, the drunk-dial has become a national pastime, and tonight untold numbers of drinkers will ring in the new year - perhaps in more ways than one. Some call these calls pathetic - particularly those made to exes - but others laud them as an outlet for spontaneous expression that at least is a whole lot healthier than many other drunken activities.
Defining the term
According to the Word Spy, a Web site that tracks new vocabulary, the term "drunk-dial" is both a verb and a noun (as in, "I got his drunk-dial"), but only applies to communications that are somehow embarrassing or absurd. One drunk-dials to emote, excoriate, declare, confide or proposition, often at a grossly inappropriate hour.
Calling a cab doesn't count. Phoning "an old friend in New Jersey" at 3 a.m. to get directions to a good Baltimore pancake house definitely does, admitted Peter Lee of Baltimore.
Drunk dialing has quickly entered the lexicon because "it's familiar to everyone," said Jim Taylor, co-writer of Sideways, the critically acclaimed film that includes an exquisite sequence in which the lead character, having downed several bottles of wine, calls his ex-wife from a restaurant pay phone.
"That's why it's humorous. Everyone has done it," Taylor said.
"Without embarrassment, there's no comedy," he said. "Life would be less rich."
If drunk dialing was eliminated by scheming cell phone companies, Taylor said, it "would be a loss" to the world.
Terrible in memory, inexplicably satisfying in the moment, drunk dialing usually happens at the end of the night when feelings of boredom or abandonment set in, said Jen Vitelli, a server in a Fells Point bar.
"It's like, `I'm wasted. What now?'" she said.
Phone with a straw
Most people have pulled a drunken phone stunt at one time or another, according to a recent study by Virgin Mobile, which not so coincidentally offers, at least in Australia, a service that allows users to block the numbers of certain people during prime imbibing hours. (The feature - whose logo is a cell phone with a straw for an antenna - probably will be offered in the United States as early as next year.)
The company found that 95 percent of people have drunk-dialed, calling ex-lovers (30 percent), current partners (19 percent) and "anyone and everyone else"(36 percent).
Nothing rams home a hangover like the shadowy recollection of a hang-up call: The company reports that, after a night of drinking, more than half of drunk-dialers assess the damage on their call logs before doing anything else, including taking aspirin.
A potent cocktail
Alcohol relaxes the inhibitions that normally control behavior. Too much allows the id - Freud's dark engine of sex and aggression - to ride roughshod over more refined parts of the personality, according to Thomas Allen, a Towson psychoanalyst. Lusts and rages spill out of the subconscious and into the receiver.
In physiological terms, the force behind drunk dialing is an alcohol-induced cascade of brain chemicals, such as dopamine, associated with pleasure and heightened sociability. This release, combined with the gradual powering-down of the central nervous system, is a toxic cocktail indeed, said Dr. Guohua Li, a professor at Johns Hopkins Medical School who specializes in alcohol-related trauma.
Most of the injuries Li sees are far worse than the damage inflicted by drunk dialing.
"Although, I guess it depends what you say," he said.
A doer's theory
No known scientific profile defines the habitual dialer, but Chris Bayne, a software salesman from Orlando, Fla., offered up an amateur observer's theory, the proof for which is in ... well, the proofs. Bayne maintains that beer, whiskey and vodka hounds are more compulsive about the behavior.
"Your gin drinkers, your Scotch drinkers have a little more class," he said. "They won't be as quick to drunk-dial, or admit they did.
"Then you have the tequila people," he said, after a considered pause. "They're just insane."
An incurable dialer who has an unsettling tendency to ring his boss, Bayne is the founder of Slackertown.com, a two-month old Web site devoted to helping afflicted phone owners.
Cell phone companies will never stop the practice of drunk dialing, Bayne believes. The impulse is too primal. That's why he set up an emergency number and answering machine where dialers can vent day or night.
"When you've got something stupid to say, you call us," he said.