What does Ponyboy mean when he says the Socs were "reeling pickled"?

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Ponyboy is talking about the Socs surrounding himself and Johnny in a park. In the slang of the day, "pickled" means drunk—so these Socs are wasted to the point of "reeling," or not being able to walk properly. As they march angrily around them, they stumble because of their heavy intoxication.

The Socs are angry with the boys for "picking up" their girls, or taking them out on something of a date, and because they are so intoxicated, they are willing to get violent and confront Ponyboy and Johnny about it. They attempt to fight and potentially kill Johnny and Ponyboy, but Johnny and Ponyboy manage to extricate themselves from the situation when Johnny stabs one of the Socs.

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In Chapter 4, Ponyboy and Johnny are relaxing in a nearby park when a blue Mustang begins to circle the park slowly. Ponyboy begins to worry, and Johnny says the Socs were probably upset at them for picking up their girls. Five Socs then exit the vehicle and begin to walk towards Johnny and Pony. Ponyboy says the Socs were staggering, and he figured they were "reeling pickled." Reeling is defined as losing one's balance, and "pickled" is slang for extremely intoxicated. Ponyboy recognizes the Socs are drunk, which is why they stagger towards them. Ponyboy and Johnny are outnumbered by a gang of drunk Socs who are looking for trouble. Unfortunately, the Socs attempt to drown Ponyboy in the park's fountain, but Johnny saves his life by stabbing Bob Sheldon.

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"Reeling pickled," as used in The Outsiders, is a slang phrase for describing extreme drunkenness. Reeling is a term that is generally used to describe someone who is off-balance or otherwise having difficulty maintaining a solid footing. It is usually used now in an emotional sense—i.e., a big surprise that left someone reeling. However, it can also describe an individual who is having difficulty maintaining their balance or composure. Someone who is stumbling and acting wildly emotional could be described as reeling.

The term "pickled" was more common at the time the book is set, but it has fallen out of favor lately. It generally refers to someone who is very intoxicated and is meant to illustrate the idea that the individual has consumed enough alcohol to actually pickle himself. Being pickled does not necessarily equate with stumbling or aggression, as an individual could be described as pickled shortly after passing out or if he were intoxicated due to depression. It could also describe a exuberantly drunken person.

Together, these words seek to describe the Socs as not only very intoxicated, but intoxicated in a manner that has left them stumbling, uncoordinated, and wildly emotional. This helps identify the danger that Ponyboy and Johnny are in as individuals in this state will be unlikely to control their actions.

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This description occurs in Chapter 4, when Ponyboy and Johnny are menaced by a group of Socs late at night. 'Reeling' means stumbling about or staggering about unsteadily, and 'pickled' is slang for being drunk. Therefore this description simply means that that this particular group of Socs are extremely drunk which makes them all the more dangerous. Their drunken state increases their hostility towards Ponyboy and Johnny as Greasers. They also have a special grievance against Ponyboy and Johnny as they blame them for picking up Cherry and Marcia, a couple of Soc girls. Ponyboy and Johnny are on their own, it is late at night, and the scene is set for a terrifying confrontation and escalation of violence. 

In the event, although the Socs make the first attack, targeting Ponyboy, it is Johnny who ends up killing one of the Socs, Bob. This is an unexpected twist, as Johnny generally comes across as the most timid of all the Greasers. However, he has been savagely beaten by Bob in the past, so that he has taken to carrying a switchblade around. When Ponyboy is attacked on the present occasion, he does not shrink from using the blade. Therefore, we might say that at one stroke he saves his friend and also gets revenge on Bob - although it is true that he never actually appears vengeful. Rather, he appears utterly shocked by what he has done: 

He was a strange greenish-white, and his eyes were huger than I'd ever seen them.  "I killed him," he said slowly. "I killed that boy."  

However, he also shows himself quite resourceful as he plans to hide out for a while with Ponyboy, enlisting some help from Dally also. Ponyboy is appalled by the whole turn of events; he has already run away from home, and this just seems to have made a bad situation much worse.

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This phrase is used in the book shortly before the altercation between Johnny and Pony and the Socs.  This is the fight in which the Socs start to beat up on the two greasers for having been with the Soc girls.  It ends up with Johnny stabbing Bob to death. 

In this context, the phrase “reeling pickled” simply means “drunk.”  There are a lot of ways to say that someone is drunk in the English language.  One of them is to say the person is “reeling.”  This is because people who are very drunk often do not have enough control of their bodies to walk straight.  We sometimes say they are “pickled,” presumably because we are saying they have been soaked in liquid like a pickle is.

When Ponyboy sees the Socs, they are staggering.  They are not walking straight.  Therefore, he thinks they are drunk.  Later on the same page (this is p. 54 in my copy of the book), Ponyboy tells us that

They smelled so heavily of whiskey … that I almost choked.

This helps us to understand that “reeling pickled” means “drunk.”

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The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines "reeling" as an adjective that means "having a feeling of being whirled about and in danger of falling down." For example, "the blood donor experienced a reeling sensation after standing up too quickly." Synonyms include aswoon, giddy, light-headed, swimmy, vertiginous, whirling, and woozy. Some related words are faint, weak, addled, befuddled, confused, dazed, and groggy.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines "pickled" as a slang term that means "being under the influence of alcohol." For example, "I must have been rather pickled when I agreed to your stupid scheme." Synonyms include besotted, blasted, blitzed, blotto, bombed, boozy, canned, cockeyed, crocked, drunken, fried, gassed, hammered, high, impaired, inebriate, inebriated, intoxicated, juiced, lit, lit up, loaded, looped, oiled, pie-eyed, plastered, potted, tipped, sloshed, smashed, sottish, soused, sozzled, squiffed, stewed, stiff, stinking, stoned, tanked, tiddly, tipsy, wasted, wet, and wiped out. These are mostly slang words. Some related words are maudlin, beery, befuddled, bleary-eyed, crapulous, dopey, rocky, strung out, stupefied, debauched, dissipated, dissolute, alcoholic, bibulous, and dipsomaniacal. 

When put together, they create an imagery of people who have drunk a great amount of alcohol, so much so that they smell strongly of it and are also stumbling over and moving around in a manner that indicates inebriation. When Ponyboy makes the observation that the Socs were "reeling pickled," he means that they were very clearly drunk and exhibiting evidence of drunkenness. 

S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders is a book that is full of slang terms from America in 1965, where the story takes place. The colloquialisms of Ponyboy Curtis's first-person narration lends to the very specific tone and style of the book. The main conflict and theme of the story revolves around two groups of teenagers who are divided by socioeconomic class. The use of slang, such as "reeling pickled" emphasizes the youth culture of the novel, as well as the two different "cultures" inherent in upper and lower economic classes. The strong language gives the narration a kind of story truth, meaning that the narrative seems much more realistic and in-the-moment because of the language. 

At the end of the novel, it is revealed that the entire narration is from Ponyboy's English class assignment. He is writing about the recent tragic events in his life, and how he feels about them and how he has come to terms with them. The slang and casual language of the entire book makes more sense in that context. It is easy for the reader to believe that this is Ponyboy's essay for school, because the language is so realistic and expected from someone like him. 

Notably, the depiction of underage drinking and the use of slang (both very realistic) have caused The Outsiders to be banned in some schools in America. 

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Ponyboy is saying that the Socs are really drunk when he describes them as “reeling pickled.”

The term “pickled” is often used to describe someone who is very drunk.  A person who is drunk is disoriented, which is a feeling described as “reeling.”  Therefore, someone who is “reeling pickled” is very drunk and disoriented.

Pony describes the Socs as drunk and “staggering.”

That scared me. A cool deadly bluff could sometimes shake them off, but not if they outnumbered you five to two and were drunk. (ch 4, p. 55)

Johnny was also “scared to death,” and while Johnny had a switchblade knife Pony did not have anything to defend himself with.  Soon the Socs had them backed up against the fountain.  Johnny had to act to defend them, and killed Bob.

Later, Cherry explains to Pony how she can’t forgive them for killing her boyfriend, but she is aware that he was a mean drunk.  The fact that the Socs are drunk makes them more dangerous, not less so, because they have even fewer inhibitions than normal.  They think about hurting greasers, without factoring in the societal consequences.

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Ponyboy means that they were drunk.

"Reeling" refers to the dizzy, staggering quality of a person's walk when they are drunk, and "pickled" is a slang term for drunkenness which is derived from the idea of being soaked in a liquid - in this case, alcohol.

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