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verb [transitive] informal

to watch several consecutive (= following in order) episodes of a TV series one after another


noun [uncountable] informal

'She's spacy, a little absentminded, incapable of keeping a diary or remembering the names of books she loves, and cites sleeping and chainwatching TV as among her favourite activities.'

The Guardian 2 July 2013

You've got the opportunity to relax and do as little as possible. Why not curl up on the sofa and enjoy an extended period of pure escapism by reaching for a DVD box set of your favourite TV series? But instead of just watching one episode, or even two, what about indulging yourself a little further and watching four? Okay, five … Well, eight then … And maybe just one more …

The activity of watching episode after episode of a TV series in a single projected sitting now has its own informal designation – to chainwatch. The motivations for chainwatching may be varied: a genuine need to relax, procrastination, or just downright laziness! Characteristic of the activity is an intense enjoyment which borders on a form of 'addiction', the idea that you can be so gripped by a show that you just have to carry on watching and are prepared to sacrifice a number of hours of precious leisure time to do so.

the motivations for chainwatching may be varied: a genuine need to relax, procrastination, or just downright laziness

The opportunity to chainwatch is very much a product of 21st century media. In the seventies, chainwatching would have been inconceivable – you could watch a programme when, and only when, it was broadcast, and that was that. Even in the eighties and early nineties, there was a limit to the amount of programmes that could be stored on the humble old video cassette. Now, DVDs have changed all that, so that even mammoth TV series like the US's Lost and 24, with 121 and 192 episodes respectively, can comfortably sit on a few discs. There's also now a wide range of satellite channels, some of which show episodes back to back. And then of course there's Internet TV, with applications such as the BBC's iPlayer offering entire series to be watched at the viewer's convenience. It seems, then, that we have a variety of ways to chainwatch at our disposal, a temptation which, for the telly addicts among us, may be just too great to resist. Along similar lines, there's also some evidence for use of the terms binge-watching or binge-viewing (compare binge drinking, etc) as well as binge listening as a more generic reference to the activity of watching TV or listening to something for extended periods of time.

Background – chainwatch

The informal verb chainwatch has been formed by analogy with the word chainsmoke, which refers to the action of smoking cigarettes one after another. The noun form chainsmoker, first used in the late 1800s, actually predates the verb by about 40 years, and its original use is thought to relate to Otto von Bismarck, cigar smoker and then chancellor of the German Empire. Chainsmoker therefore came into English as a loan translation of the original German word Kettenraucher.

Interestingly enough, there's at least a smattering of evidence to suggest that chain- has begun to take on a life of its own as a productive prefix, with the function of suggesting that an activity is compulsive or repetitious. Examples include chainlisten, describing the practice of listening to a particular song or piece of music over and over again, or the activities of chaineating and chaindrinking, in which people repeatedly consume a particular kind of food or drink. Examples suggest that intrinsic to this meaning of chain- is the idea of indulgence and doing things that are 'bad for you', such as eating high-calorie food or drinking alcohol (you could chaindrink coffee or cocktails for example, but would be unlikely to chaindrink water).

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 7th January 2014.

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