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Addiction In American History: 14 Vivid Graphs

The language of addiction is always evolving. Maybe we need an addictionary.

For example, when the word "alcohol" was written or spoken in early 19th-century America. it was often used in the chemical and medical sense. This is from an article about drawing out the essence of stramonium, or jimson weed: "The virtues of stramonium," the New England Journal of Medicine reported in January of 1818, "appear to be seated in an extractive principle, which dissolves in water and alcohol."

The word "cocaine" had different connotations as well. In the 1860s, for instance, a substance termed "cocaine" was advertised by a Boston company as a topical treatment to prevent hair loss.

Over time these words – "alcohol", "cocaine" and others, including "drugs" and" intoxicated" – became more closely associated with substance use, abuse and addiction in American popular culture.

Abusive Language

With these words as backdrop, researchers at Recovery.org – an online clearing house that connects addicts with treatment centers — set out to examine the morphing of certain addiction-related words in American history. The group entered 14 words commonly used in the world of substance abuse and addiction into the Corpus of Historical American English — an impressively vast online database compiled by Brigham Young University.

COHA, as it's known, contains some 115,000 textual sources and roughly 400 million words written and spoken between 1810 and 2009. "We then gathered the surrounding context for each of these words," the Recovery.org site explains, "by collecting all words within 10 words before and after each occurrence."

Recovery.org turned its findings over to Fractl, a Florida-based marketing group and Fractl contacted the NPR History Dept to see if we would be interested in posting some of their discoveries. Consequently, we present some of the resulting revelatory graphs — about half — from the study Addiction- And Drug-Related Word Associations Throughout History.

One more thing: The charts are on various time scales; the "Addiction" chart, for example, starts at 1815, while the "Alcoholism" chart begins in 1895. Similarly, the frequency scales are different, too; the y axis on "Cocaine" goes from 0 to 25 million words, while the y axis on "Drugs" goes to 80 million. So without further ado:


"While many of the terms we studied hit their peak in the latter half of the 20th century," the researchers at Recovery.org points out, "'addicted' got a strong start in the early 1800s. In that era, the word was commonly used in conjunction with 'habit' and in condemnations of 'vices' as well as any frowned-upon 'practice"'or 'pursuits'." Reporting on European events in May, 1896, a writer for the Ironwood News-Record in Michigan noted that "the queen of Portugal is addicted to masculine pursuits."


"Mentions of 'alcohol' have grown steadily from 1810 to the present," according to Recovery.org, "but until 1900, the term was paired with 'drugs' almost exclusively. At that point, terminology from scientific literature such as 'wood' alcohol and 'denatured' alcohol began to appear as well as later industrial uses for alcohols involving 'cellulose' and 'shellac.'"


"'Alcoholism' made its debut in the lexicon around 1900, associated almost exclusively with 'crime' and 'dreams' – coincidentally around the time that Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams was published," Recovery.org notes. "However, the association with crime was soon eclipsed by concern over 'chronic' alcoholism and 'death'/'deaths' related to alcoholism, which ballooned in the 1920s during the height of the prohibition movement." Documentarian Ken Burns echoes this in his series, Prohibition. One of the tragic unintended consequences of the nationwide crackdown on alcohol was an increase in dangerous, unregulated spirits — leading to 1,000 deaths a year.


"Unlike most other terms we studied," the Recovery.org researchers noted, "'cocaine' barely appeared at all until the 1970s when the drug became more prevalent in the U.S."


"The term 'drugs' was mentioned at relatively low levels before skyrocketing from 1950 to the present," the Recovery.org researchers noticed, "and it's now the most commonly used word of the group that we analyzed."


"Across the time span we studied, 'intoxicated' peaked in the 1800s, with its frequency declining by more than two-thirds in the present day." the Recovery.org researchers determined in the two charts below. Note that the area graph doesn't cover the same time period as the frequency chart just above it — 1815-2015 vs. 1815-1995. "During the 19th century, it was used to refer to being intoxicated by 'liquor,' but also in a more metaphorical sense – intoxicated by 'beauty'."

Follow me @NPRHistoryDept; lead me by writing lweeks@npr.org

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.