How Discussions of Drugs and Death Have Changed Over the Past 200 Years

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Drug is one of those commonplace words whose exact origins are a total mystery. Borrowed into English from French, it has appeared in the language since as far back as the 14th century—even Geoffrey Chaucer wrote of “apothecaries to sende him drogges” in the prologue to the Canterbury Tales—but where the word’s precise origins lie is unclear. One tentative explanation suggests that the original drugs might have been Dutch droge vate, or “dry vats” (namely the barrels used to store dried herbs and spices used in medicines), but as most dictionaries agree that’s just a guess, so the true etymology of our drugs remains unsolved.

That might be true of the word "drug" itself, but as a landmark new language study has shown, as society has changed over the past 200 years, so too has the language we use to describe concepts like drugs, drug use, and drug addiction—and, crucially, the contexts in which these kinds of subjects appear.

Based on the immense 400 million word Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), the study has not only explored the prevalence of words having to do with drug and alcohol use over almost two centuries of written English, but has also analyzed their co-occurrence alongside words to do with death, dying, and mortality to see precisely how our approach to this subject has changed.

Initially, a sample both of drug- and alcohol-related words (including the likes of addict, dealer, hallucinogen, illicit, psychoactive, and rehab) and a sample of words relating to death and dying (like autopsy, coroner, morbidity, mourning, and untimely) were compiled, and the individual occurrences of these in written American English since the 1810s were charted.

Words to do with mortality, it soon emerged, were used more than twice as often in the early 19th century as they are today. At the same time, words relating to drug use have increased enormously, from almost no references at all in the 1800s to more than 200 occurrences per million printed words today. Given improvements in the likes of healthcare, workplace safety, and increased survival rates from once deadly diseases, the former trend might seem unsurprising—but what if we were to look at the two sets of words in context with one another? Would we find the same trend then?

The study next looked at just how often words related to drugs are used in proximity to words related to death and dying, and remarkably, charting these contextual occurrences produced a graph looking almost exactly the same as that for the drug-related words in any context. It seems that for as long as people have been writing about drug use, people have been writing about deaths caused by the misuse of drugs.

Breaking these figures down further into fictional, non-fictional, newspaper, and magazine sources, the overall figures were boosted by the explosion of non-fiction reporting in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The introduction of Prohibition and the dramatically increased reporting in newspapers and magazines led to a second spike in these figures in the 1920s and '30s, followed by another in the '70s and '80s coinciding with the War on Drugs announced by President Richard Nixon in 1971. Figures have fallen slightly since then, but understandably remain considerably higher than in the distant past.

To further explore the circumstances in which drug use has been written about, the study took one final step of collating words usually unrelated to both drug use and mortality, that still nevertheless often appear alongside them.

The results showed a dramatic shift. In the early 19th century, for instance, drugs were more often than not found in grand, poetic contexts, alongside words like love, nature, heart, voice, and God. In the 1830s, even thou and thy—pronouns that had long since fallen out of regular use, but which were retained in only the most formal of contexts—were among the most common words to appear. As the authors of the study explain:

To our modern perception, the language of the past was often heightened in drama and more poetic. The word “drug” was associated with an ecstatic loss of reason, similar to that caused by "love." Lofty, all-encompassing concepts like “nature” and “God” appear, and “thou” is used even though it had disappeared from common, practical use centuries earlier.

By the later 1800s, though, things had begun to change. Words like store, glass, bottle, paste, and even arsenic began to emerge in context, followed by poison in the 1920s. During Prohibition, inspector became one of the most frequently encountered terms. Pharmaceutical breakthroughs in the mid-20th century saw penicillin, pneumonia, and physician come out on top, followed by the likes of induce, sudden, clinic, and methadone in the '60s and '70s. More recently, the likes of rush, risk, and shoot have begun to appear, alongside the likes of hotel and even kid.

The study clearly demonstrates changes not only in the incidence of conversations about drugs and drug use, but in how the words we use to describe these subjects have changed dramatically, reflecting broader social changes along the way.

The entire study, including its full findings and methodology, can be accessed online here.