A Modern History of Thirst

by Brendan O’Connor

We need water. And maybe somebody’s daughter. — The Who, “Water

Recently, in a story about brands and hashtags, the New York Times defined a word.

The effort to co-opt cool can backfire, Mr. Roan said. When someone is “watching a topic that’s trending and then whips up some contrived way to get their voice in that conversation, it’s very predatory and a super-false way to speak,” he said. Or worse: “It reeks of thirst,” he said. (We looked it up, and “thirst,” in this case, means “desperate.”)

This definition may or may not come from UrbanDictionary.com, where the top entry for the word ‘thirsty’ is dated to 2003 and contains two definitions. The first is, “Too eager to get something (especially play)”; the second, merely “desperate.” Ten years later, another user defined thirsty as “The need to gain fame and admiration through social media,” specifically “by posting ‘selfie’ pictures to boost the self esteem.”

Now, not to universalize anyone’s experience, but one of the things about having a living human body is that there are certain functions with which we are all necessarily familiar — one of those is the physical imperative to imbibe water. If we don’t have water, we die. To one degree or another, everyone is familiar with this bodily phenomenon, which, as far as shared language is concerned, makes for a powerful, experiential reference point.

In this sense, to be “thirsty” is a natural state of being; to describe someone in this context as “thirsty” is not a value-judgement — or it is, but only in so far as the state of being “thirsty” is reflective of the bodily state of being dehydrated. But calling someone “dehydrated” doesn’t roll off the tongue in quite the same way as calling someone “thirsty.” “’Thirst’ sounds gross as a word,” one friend told me. “It slithers around in your mouth.”

Like many colloquialisms, however, the word’s meaning has changed both over time and depending upon whose mouth it is slithering around in. On the hook to “Ching-A-Ling,” the lead single to the Step Up 2: The Streets soundtrack released in January 2008, Missy Elliot sings, “Thirsty, baby, bring it over here / See my money maker, do my money maker.” An episode of This American Life from that same month, “Matchmakers,” included a story about an Afghan man’s infatuation. “The young boy get a little bit thirsty, especially in Afghanistan,” a friend of the story’s subject told the segment producer. “When you drink some things more and more, you are not thirsty.” In May of this year, Mariah Carey released her own “Thirsty,” on which she sings, “You used to be Mister-all-about-we / Now you’re just thirsty for celebrity.” The first two examples are evocative of the desire for sexual attention, while Carey echoes the more recent Urban Dictionary definition’s gesture towards the influence of social media on the word’s meaning when she goes on to sing, “So you stunting on your Instagram / But that shit ain’t everything.”

In the cycle of appropriation to which African-American Vernacular English is particularly subject, there comes a point at which a certain kind of person begins to fixate on the fixation of meaning: over the past six months, for example, writers for New York magazine’s The Cut, Jezebel, and BuzzFeed have volleyed back and forth over the meaning of “basic,” culminating in Kara Brown’s proclamation that overanalyzing the word “basic” is itself the most basic thing of all. “It’s really not that deep,” Brown wrote. And yet! Can we really deny that in the decontextualized, dehistoricized desert of social media, words lose their original shape and take on new ones? As a word is passed around this landscape, back and forth across the Internet, it seems worth considering the relationship between the different meanings it accrues.

In my experience, calling someone “thirsty” either in public or behind their back seems to happen most often when a man says something inappropriate to a woman on the Internet. “To be ‘thirsty’ is to be needy of someone’s attention without realizing it,” my friend Kevin told me. “It’s not necessarily romantic attention, but when it is, ‘thirsty’ is really just a euphemism for being horny and lacking any self-awareness about it.” Kevin says he isn’t thirsty, but knows it when he sees it.

The idea of “thirst” seems to me not altogether unrelated to certain put-downs of my youth: God help you if people thought you were a “poser,” for example, or a “follower,” or a “try-hard.” There were nuances, even then, that differentiated the meaning and use of these words, but what unified them all is that the connotation of desperation to be acknowledged, included, and validated. In a word: to be cool. Even now, the artifacts of cool may change, but the artifice remains, and what will always be the least cool of all will be to be caught in the construction of the artifice. What sets “thirst” apart from these earlier ideas, however, is that while the “poser” was just wearing cargo shorts because everyone else was wearing cargo shorts — and even the most precocious sixth grader can hardly be expected to develop a coherent and thoughtful personal style — a grown adult who is “thirsty” is someone who ought to know better, but doesn’t. It is a personal failing of another order entirely.

“I think ‘thirst’ is generally pretty gendered. And for those of us (women) that deal with casual harassment on a daily basis, it’s less of a cute concept to embrace,” my friend Nicole told me over Gchat. Kevin speculated that “pointing out a man’s ‘thirst’ is a gentler way of telling him that he is acting inappropriately.” My friend Jessie told me, “Women are very sensitive to thirst. If a woman calls you thirsty, you are being thirsty.” For this reason, the epithet can be quite scalding when used sincerely. “I would not call someone thirsty if they were not being thirsty,” wrote Casey, another friend. “I’ve called you thirsty in a joking way and you got mad.” It’s true, I did.

What is the relationship, then, between thirsty men harassing women on Twitter — or anywhere, really, but especially on Twitter — and thirsty brands harassing consumers, as mentioned in that New York Times piece? Most Twitter users are probably familiar with the experience of mentioning a product on Twitter only to have the Twitter account belonging to that product’s producer butt into the conversation. It might be useful for a certain kind of man to remember that feeling he gets — some combination of annoyance, surprise, and disgust — when an uninvited brand interrupts a conversation or canoe. Is it possible, he might ask himself, that I — not a brand, but a man — have behaved in such a way to provoke similar feelings in the people to whose conversation I felt compelled to contribute? Maybe. Maybe not! Social cues can be hard to read, especially on the Internet. We’ve all been there.

“Thirst is different than hunger,” another friend wrote. (The body, it turns out, is a rich source of figurative language.) “Hunger is a long-term desire for something that is definitely personal but doesn’t require another person to be on the other end of it.” My friend Caroline reassured me, “It’s always good to be excited or eager about something. Being passionate shouldn’t mean you’re desperate, but sometimes wires get crossed. I think holding in thirst to please other people and to be ‘cool’ is the thirstiest thing one can do.”

I wondered about this. Is it thirsty to contact editors, asking to meet for coffee? Is it thirsty to fave their tweets? By definition, if I were thirsty — in this way, or otherwise — I wouldn’t even know it. More to the point: is it thirsty to ask friends and acquaintances for quotes… for an article about “thirst?” Is this whole piece thirsty?? Maybe! “If a person is being thirsty in order to further his or her career (e.g. an email to friends asking for quotes about what it means to be thirsty), it’s rude to call that person ‘thirsty’ to his/her face,” my friend Abe wrote. “Which is what I did, and I feel bad for it now.” (“This email has created a metatextual irony loop so powerful it rivals the Large Hadron Collider,” he also wrote.)

| ̄ ̄ ̄ ̄ ̄ ̄  ̄ ̄  ̄ ̄ ̄| | i’m so fucking | thirsty | |________ _ __| (__/) || (•ㅅ•) || / づ”

— Sin Subadere (@hadakasinpie) July 7, 2014

Again, this feels like the most basic definition of the word used as slang. But slang, almost by definition, is where language is at its most fluid and dynamic — on the periphery, outside of codified, official meaning. Indeed this is its cachet, and it plays a large part in why so many kids spend so much time studiously adopting — appropriating — mannerisms and phrasing that originate from well outside their immediate surroundings. And it is why the re-appropriation of certain words, in turn, is such a radical rhetorical strategy. Indeed, it seems to me that this is what is happening with the idea of the “thirst trap” — shorthand, in its way, for a woman (or Idris Elba) owning her (or his) sexuality and deploying it when, where, and how she sees fit.

All of which is to say: every once in a while, people seem to stumble into a word that can be used to describe a kind of experience that they were less able to describe before — and that, perhaps, is not such a bad thing.

I’ve heard it recommended that one drink at least half as many ounces of water in a day as one weighs in pounds. I’m not sure of the scientific authority behind this benchmark, but I tend follow it anyway. I’ve also heard that you’re not supposed to give someone who is literally dying of thirst too much water at once, because it will literally make their cells explode. Maybe that’s an Uber Fact. Anyway! It behooves me to drink — by the mysterious metric mentioned above — at least 85 ounces or so of water every day. (I hover around 173 lbs.) I hit this goal regularly, filling and emptying my 32-ounce Nalgene water bottle at least three times a day. The initial act of filling my water bottle requires thought, and action, but the drinking of the water has become an almost thoughtless action. I also drink a lot of coffee. What I’m saying is that I pee a lot. It’s fine. But also: you don’t have to be thirsty to drink. And in fact, if you drink enough water, you needn’t ever be thirsty in the first place.


Brendan O’Connor is a reporter who lives off of the L train.