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A Slave for Addiction: The Origins of the Word

A Slave for Addiction: The Origins of the Word

The word addiction has become something that we’re all familiar with. In recent years, the opioid epidemic has brought the term to the forefront. But, where did the word originally come from?

Defining Addiction

According to, the root word addict comes from the Latin word addictus (past tense addicere), which means “to devote, sacrifice, sell out, betray or abandon.” In the Roman law, an addiction was a person that became enslaved through a court ruling. While this definition isn’t exactly how we would define, or use the word today, it is easy to see how the word evolved into its present form over time. The modern definition of addiction is a “persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful.” While the modern and Latin definitions are quite different, a connection can certainly be drawn between the two. Research has shown that addiction is a disease that chemically alters your brain, making you “a slave” to a substance or activity. The Latin definition gets support from the ancient myth of Addictus. The myth tells the story of a slave who is set free from his master but became so used to his chains, that he wandered the land with his chains still attached even though he could have removed them at any time. This story of course can be seen as a metaphor for the modern definition of addiction as we know it today. Because an addict becomes tolerant to the drugs they use, they become a slave that doesn’t recognize their own freedom.

History of the Use of the Word Addiction

The Latin definition of the root word addict began changing during the sixteenth century. At this time, the word was used primarily as an adjective meaning to feel formally bound or obligated. This changed with time to refer to being attached to something or someone. The first known recorded reference of the term addiction in the more modern sense, was by Shakespeare in Henry V. Shakespeare used the word to imply a sense of strong inclination, having the Archbishop of Canterbury remark that the King’s knowledge of theology was an improvement over previous hobbies: “his addiction was to courses vain.” The Archbishop was basically saying that the King’s previous hobbies were boring. From this point forward, the word addiction began cropping up in other writings, primarily being used to refer to someone that had an inclination towards a habit or goal. The word addict changed from an adjective to a noun at the beginning of the twentieth century, in specific reference to a person with a drug dependence.

Casual Overuse of the Word Addiction

As with many words in the English language, the term addiction has seen adoption as a blanket term for things that people enjoy on a regular basis. “I’m so addicted to this coffee,” or “I’m a Starbucks addict.” These individuals are most likely not suffering from an actual addiction, but rather remarking on their frequent enjoyment of an activity, food or drink. This over use of the term in such a casual manner can be seen as damaging in the long-term, as it implies that an addiction is a common thing that happens to everyone. We know, of course, that this isn’t the case. Addiction is a serious disease that can be devastating. For those that aren’t suffering from addiction or haven’t felt the pain of watching a loved do so, it may not click that their casual usage is harmful. Addiction

Understanding Addiction Through its Definition

What can we learn from the definition and history of the term addiction? As the opioid addiction rages on in the US, more and more people are becoming “slaves” to a drug that, in many cases, was supposed to ease the pain from an injury. We now know, that many individuals may have a genetic predisposition to addiction, and it is increasingly important that we understand what addiction does to the human brain. This understanding goes hand-in-hand with changing the public perception of what addiction is. Casual usage of the term contributes to the false public perception of addiction: that it’s a choice. We must work to change this perception, as it is harmful to those experiencing addiction. But changing the lexicon of a word is easier said than done, particularly when the casual usage of certain words become accepted definitions over time. This happens when words are used to mean the opposite of the true definition ironically or sarcastically. These instances are known as contranyms. While the addiction isn’t a contranym, it’s casual usage is a problem. What can you do? If you are battling or have battled an addiction, be open and honest when you hear others misusing the term. Addiction isn’t something that can be stopped easily, and in many cases, it’s impossible to do without help. Did you find the history of the word addiction interesting? Have you ever used the word in a casual manner to describe something that you frequently enjoy? We’d love to hear what you think in the comments below.