In the early stages of your sobriety journey, you may decide to enroll in a 12-step fellowship, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. There is a whole new way of thinking and making decisions that come with recovery, and there is also what may seem like a whole new language to learn: “AA jargon,” like the term ‘friends of Bill W.’
William Griffith Wilson, also known as Bill Wilson, or “Bill W.,” and co-founder Bob Smith, or “Bob,” are the originators of several AA terminologies, sayings, and expressions. Since the group’s inception, several idioms have emerged, including the association with Bill W that has become synonymous with membership, especially as shorthand on cruise lines and ships.
Keep reading for our guide to what 12-step programs offer as well as a helpful resource for the AA jargon often used by members.
What Is AA Language?
Many expressions and idioms associated with sobriety may be found in AA and NA literature. They might be used by other 12-step groups that follow the AA paradigm. The AA jargon originated for several causes.
Phrases like “it works when you work it” is meant to serve as reminders of basic ideas for the group. Following the AA Traditions, the organization chooses to use phrases like “Friends of Bill W.” to ensure that its members’ anonymity is maintained.
You may learn the language of the organization and its members by looking at some real-life instances of the most popular AA jargon, and you may even be familiar with some sayings like, “One Day at A Time.’
Taking the Next Right Action
Participating and working the 12 Steps and regularly attending AA groups is known as the “Right Action.” More specifically, attending an AA meeting and participating with the help of a sponsor is considered the right action. At any given meeting, you’ll find many participants attending with their sponsors, who are in recovery themselves.
“Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Over a Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism” is the basic text of AA and is usually referred to as “The Big Book.” There are many inspiring accounts of AA members’ journeys to sobriety outlined within its pages.
Actions that are “correct” for AA members are those that are accomplished via working the steps. Following the Steps is meant to help one develop a more positive outlook on life, other people, and the recovery process as a whole. In an effort to alter a substance-abusing lifestyle, a shift in outlook and approach is essential.
Friends of Bill W. and Cruise Ships
The term “a friend of Bill W.” used in AA does not relate to anyone you may know in real life. Instead, it is a code term used to conceal the identities of the group’s participants. Why do individuals in recovery value anonymity so highly, and what does it entail exactly?
The anonymity of its members is one of AA’s core tenets. In a word, anonymity in AA meetings implies that everyone there will respect your privacy and keep whatever you say to themselves.
You may be asked if you know Bill W if you are seen loitering around the meeting place and peering through doors or windows.
The person asking you this code word is trying to determine whether you are truly seeking the AA meeting in a method that keeps your identity secret.
Originally, the term “friends of Bill W.” was used as a cruise compass to find meetings onboard cruise ships where members wanted to stay completely anonymous on vacation but still sneak in a meeting or two. Signage that indicates a meeting for ‘friends of Bill W’ can still be seen on cruise lines around the world, though the term is used somewhat less as many people proudly acknowledge their recovery and membership, even in otherwise Anonymous 12-step programs.
The Importance of Anniversaries and Birthdays in Sobriety
All recovery steps are celebrated as successes in AA and other 12-step programs. When a member of AA or NA reaches certain sobriety milestones, such as 30 days, 90 days, six months, etc., they get a “chip” as a physical reminder of their accomplishment.
The passage of another year signifies the occurrence of a “birthday.” The moderator of a meeting may inquire if someone is honoring one of these dates. At an alcoholics anonymous meeting, a “10th yearly birthday” is the anniversary of a person’s sobriety rather than their actual birth date. Thus, it’s understood that the individual has been sober for 10 years.
In the Eastern part of the United States, anniversaries are more common than birthdays, so you might not hear much about a person’s “anniversary” instead of their “birthday.” Biological anniversaries are sometimes referred to as “belly button birthdays” to avoid confusion.
Old-Timers and The Traditions of the 12 Steps
The phrase “old-timer” is commonly used among AA group members, but you might be startled to learn that the person being referred to as such is actually rather young. That’s because the only factor that matters for determining whether or not someone is an old-timer in AA is how long they’ve been attending meetings and maintaining continuous sobriety.
A long-term AA member is a veteran of the program. These people may take up roles as meeting facilitators, sponsors, or event volunteers within the organization. Some long-time members can even recite large chunks of The Big Book verbatim.
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 you might encounter an “old-timer” who is actually older. In such an instance, “a seasoned AA member” could be the most accurate description.
A Dry Drunk and the Importance of Active Participation
Addiction recovery communities outside of AA may find the phrase “dry drunk” unpleasant because it is not a clinical word. This word describes a person who has abstained from substance use but has taken no further measures toward recovery.
In an AA context, this might signify that the individual has ceased working the 12 Steps and attending meetings.
A “dry drunk” is someone who has stopped drinking or doing drugs but hasn’t changed their outlook on life or the way they think about things. When someone is in this mental state, they may have feelings of nostalgia, fixation, and a desire to reexperience the euphoric benefits of drug or alcohol usage.
Clinical research has confirmed that this is a real phenomenon that can occur during either the emotional or mental relapse stages. According to the research, when alcoholics relapse, it is a slow process that typically begins with thoughts and feelings of obsession with drugs or alcohol.
It Works If You Work It
The “work” of AA revolves around the 12 Steps, a set of recovery principles. Using the AA fellowship, going through the 12 Steps, and living by the 12 Traditions of AA are all examples of “working it,” and the statement “it works if you work it” describes this process well. The “work” of AA includes not just meeting with other members but also performing acts of service to the community. Examples of this service include the following:
- Community service (e.g., setting up chairs, making beverages, or other tasks required for a meeting)
- Reaching out to fellow 12-steppers to aid a struggling newbie.
- Meeting leadership
- Accepting and supporting newcomers via sponsorship
- Putting in a request to share your AA success story as a speaker
Step 13: A Step Better Left Alone
If you’re lucky enough to avoid having to go through Step 13 during your time in recovery, the expression simply refers to a sexual relationship between a seasoned AA member and a newcomer to the fellowship who has just discovered meetings.
Suffice to say, when you’re first becoming sober, it’s not a good idea to jump into a new romantic relationship.
Friends of Bill W. and Methods of Celebrating Fellowship
Whether it’s friends of Bill W. or another type of lingo used at get-togethers, if there’s one thing this “secret code” does besides maintain anonymity, it also promotes a higher level of support by creating a camaraderie. This gives people who join a new type of hope and a sense of accountability, as there’s a distinct feeling that they’re a part of something unique and special.
At Pathfinders Recovery, we use a similar mindset, organizing get-togethers in the form of a 12-Step Meeting, giving clients a chance to bond with peers, in addition to taking part in some type of spiritual or holistic experience.
Not only does this give clients a chance to bond with peers, but there’s additional expert advice available via group meetings you wouldn’t otherwise have access to with counselor meetings.
We would love to get you on board with our groundbreaking treatment program! To find out how we can help you on your path to recovery and lay a strong spiritual foundation, contact a member of our admissions team today.