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As you begin your recovery journey, you may join a 12-step program; it may be the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or some other 12-step fellowship. Along with a new way of thinking and decision-making you may approach in recovery, there’s also what may seem like an entirely new language to learn—”Alcoholics Anonymous lingo.”
Some AA lingo, sayings, and phrases come from founders Bill Wilson, commonly referred to as Bill W., and Bob Smith. Other catchphrases have developed since the organization was established. This article serves as a review of the meaning of common Alcoholics Anonymous lingo used in the AA community.
Friends of Bill W.
Birthdays, Anniversaries, and Chips
It Works if You Work it
What Is AA Lingo?
AA and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) uses many words and catchphrases related to recovery. Other 12-step fellowships based on AA’s model may also use them. There are many different reasons for the AA lingo. Some sayings aim to help group members remember foundational principles, such as “it works when you work it.” Other terms, such as “Friends of Bill W.,” protect group members’ anonymity, in keeping with the AA Traditions.
Here are examples of the most common AA lingo aimed at helping you get a better understanding of the program’s terminology.
Friends of Bill W.
The AA lingo “a friend of Bill W.” does not refer to a person you know in the program. Instead, it is a code phrase of sorts aimed at protecting group members’ anonymity. What is anonymity, and why is it so important to people in recovery?
Anonymity is considered a foundational principle in AA. In a nutshell, anonymity means that other AA group members will keep your identity and anything you say at an AA meeting in strict confidence.
So, if someone sees you outside the meeting location, peeking into doors or windows, you may be asked if you’re a friend of Bill’s.1 By asking you this code phrase, the person is inquiring whether you are looking for the AA meeting in a way that will protect your anonymity.
Alcoholics Anonymous is built on principles of action. The “right action” refers to working the 12 Steps of AA, often with the help of an AA sponsor, a peer mentor who has completed the 12 Steps and maintained sobriety for a significant period.1
The Big Book, formally named “Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism,” is the primary text used to describe the AA process and philosophy. The Big Book is a compilation of recovery stories by the founders and other AA members. The book includes directions on how to work the 12 Steps of AA. Working the steps is how AA members take the “right action.” The Steps are said to lead to a new and improved attitude toward self, others, and recovery in general. Changing your perspective and attitude is fundamental as you attempt to see and do things differently to change your old lifestyle of misusing substances.3
Birthdays, Anniversaries, and Chips
In AA and other 12-step groups, all milestones in recovery are considered victories. AA and NA give members “chips” as physical reminders of their success when they reach 30 days, 90 days, six months sober, and so on. Yearly milestones are also cause for celebration.3 When you’re in a meeting, the facilitator will ask if anyone is celebrating one of these milestones. If someone announces a 10th annual birthday, and it’s clear that they are older than 10, this AA lingo refers to the 10th anniversary of when the person got sober.
If you don’t hear about birthdays in the rooms of AA, you may be on the country’s Eastern geographic area, where annual milestones are typically referred to as anniversaries instead of birthdays. To keep the terms straight, “belly button birthdays” are sometimes used to describe biological birthdays.
When you talk to AA group members, you’ll often hear the term “old-timer,” and you may be surprised to realize the old timer is a young individual. That’s because being an old-timer has nothing to do with a person’s chronological age but with how long the person’s been in AA. An old-timer has attended AA for a significant period. These individuals may lead meetings, be sponsors, or volunteer at AA events. Many old-timers can even quote verbatim much of the text from The Big Book.1
Of course, there will always be some old-timers who have been around the block, so to speak, when it comes to AA recovery, so it’s possible to run into an old-timer who is actually older. In that case, perhaps the best way to refer to the person may be “an experienced AA member.”
If you have just started to attend AA, you might be called a beginner, newbie, or newcomer.1 A newcomer is usually given a warm reception upon entering the AA fellowship. This is because Alcoholics Anonymous is based on experienced members helping newcomers learn the principles that have helped them stay in recovery. The founders of AA discovered that they were not very successful at staying sober unless they shared their experience, strength, and hope with others.
The term “dry drunk” is not a clinical term used in the recovery field and may be considered offensive in addiction recovery spaces outside of AA. The term refers to when a person stops using substances but does not participate in other recovery services or take other action steps toward recovery. In the context of AA, this may mean that a person has stopped attending meetings and is not working the 12 Steps or utilizing any other resources AA provides.
When a person stops using substances, but there is no change in worldview, thought patterns, or attitude, it can result in the state of mind AA lingo calls being a “dry drunk.”2,3 This state of mind is when the individual may dwell on the past, obsess about substance use, or wish they could regain the pleasurable effects of substance use. This is a clinically recognized state, falling into either the emotional or mental stages of relapse, or both. Researchers consider relapse to be gradual and progressive, with a preoccupation with substances and the past and obsessive thoughts often preceding actual substance use .5
It Works If You Work It
The 12 Steps are a set of recovery principles and the foundation of the “work” in AA. Generally, the phrase “it works if you work it” refers to employing the AA fellowship, working the 12 Steps, and implementing the 12 Traditions of AA into daily life.1 In addition, service is part of the “work” involved in AA. Service work consists of action steps such as: 2,3
- Volunteer work (e.g., setting up chairs, making beverages, or other tasks required for a meeting)
- Going on 12-step calls to help a newcomer in need
- Chairing meetings
- Sponsoring newcomers
- Signing up as a speaker to tell your AA story of recovery
The “promises” of AA are two-fold; they describe the spiritual changes when a person works the program. The promises also outline how many of the struggles involved in a life of substance abuse will decrease or disappear. AA members who work the 12-step program are promised a new spiritual foundation and a fresh outlook on life.
These changes are said sometimes to occur quickly and sometimes slowly, but The Big Book states that they “will always materialize if we work for them.”1
The internal shift described in the AA promises is found in Chapter 6, “Into Action,” in The Big Book. These benefits of working one’s recovery program include:1
The AA promises include the disappearance of negative traits that often accompany a life of misusing substances, such as:1
- A sense of purposelessness
The promises of AA are said to materialize due to working Step 9, which involves making direct amends. The Step 9 promises are read aloud at the end of an AA meeting, usually before a closing prayer.1
The AA promises can inspire recovery, especially for struggling newcomers. The Big Book mentions the promises as “Being fulfilled among us—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.”1 Some AA members report the promises manifesting early on, while others experience them gradually.
Hopefully, you won’t have to encounter Step 13 during your recovery journey; this phrase refers to a more experienced AA member dating someone new to the program. Starting a new romantic relationship early in recovery is not encouraged because it can take you off course from working on your recovery.3
In AA, the word “spiritual” does not necessarily reference God or religion. AA has no religious affiliation, and it is not an AA requirement to believe in God. Instead, each group member identifies a higher power according to their own belief. The higher power can be one’s connection to nature, it could be a deity, or it could simply be a sense of community found associated with other group members.1,3
The definition of a spiritual awakening is difficult to articulate. Having a spiritual awakening is unique to each person. But there are some signs that a person has experienced a spiritual transformation during recovery, including: 1,3
- A change in perception about yourself and the world around you, accepting both the good and bad things in life and feeling capable of handling whatever comes your way without relying on substances
- A change in attitude from anger or unwillingness to calmly identifying one’s wrongs and accepting criticisms
- Embracing many of the things that make life worth living, such as humor, compassion, connection to others, and self-acceptance
- Giving off an unmistakable vibe of openness via one’s body language as well as verbally
- Feeling empowered when it comes to sharing and experiencing emotions without the use of substances and the realization that working through these feelings has improved the overall quality of your life
- Feeling more fulfilled, purposeful, and energetic than when misusing substances
Bill W. describes his spiritual awakening as involving “bright light,” which is sometimes called a “hot flash” or “white light transformation.”1 Bill W. considered himself in a highly depressed state of mind before his spiritual awakening in 1934. Bill W. was hospitalized for delirium tremens, a physical condition that sometimes occurs after using large amounts of alcohol for an extended period.
Bill W.’s account of awakening spiritually included feelings of being at the depths of despair to suddenly seeing the bright light and experiencing a “new world of consciousness.” After his seven-day hospital stay, Bill W. reportedly never took another drink of alcohol and remained sober the rest of his life.1,4
The “three legacies” of Alcoholics Anonymous are recovery, unity, and service. Together, these three legacies form the core philosophy that underlies the process of AA.
- Recovery is the healing process of overcoming addiction and becoming the best version of yourself. Recovery is based on the 12 steps of AA and the teachings within the Big Book.
- Unity is the community and togetherness achieved by attending AA meetings and making yourself vulnerable with others in a group setting. The principles of unity are contained in the 12 traditions of AA.
- Service is the ability to help others who are struggling with the challenges of addiction you used to struggle with. Every time you attend a group meeting or help another on their path, you are carrying the message and continuing the legacy of service.
A core premise of Alcoholics Anonymous is that nobody should walk the path of sobriety alone, and that we may achieve better success with social support. A sponsor is someone who can provide direct support to newcomers outside of AA meetings by making themselves available after meeting hours. A sponsor is typically someone who has dealt with and overcome addiction in the past, and has a strong grasp of the 12-step method to guide others through difficult times. Not everyone in AA has to have a sponsor, but having one can help make it through difficult times and resist the urge to relapse.
Cliches are short sayings and motivational quotes that can help individuals struggling with addiction stay strong during tough times. Many AA cliches may seem cheesy, but these simple sayings work as a quick reminder of all the progress you have made and not to give up. Some examples of common AA cliches are:
- One day at a time
- Easy does it
- Live and let live
- Progress, not perfection
- Nothing changes if nothing changes
- Keep it simple
- First things first
- Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (2001). The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous Fourth Edition. New York City: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.
- Laudet, A.B., Morgen. K., & White, W. (2008, September 23). The Role of Social Supports, Spirituality, Religiousness, Life Meaning and Affiliation with 12-Step Fellowships in Quality of Life Satisfaction Among Individuals in Recovery from Alcohol and Drug Problems. Alcohol Treatment Quarterly, 24 (1–2), 33–73.
- Dossett, W. (2013, April 29) Addiction, spirituality, and 12-Step Programmes. International Social Work, 56(3), 369–383.
- White, L. W. (1979). Recovery from alcoholism: Transpersonal dimensions. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 11(2), 117-128.
- Melemis, S.M. (2015, September 03). Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery. Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 88(3): 325–332.