The Etymology and Early History of ‘Addiction’


Contemporary usage of addiction is contradictory and confusing; the term is highly stigmatizing but popularly used to describe almost any strong desire, passion or pursuit. Does current usage involve a recent corruption of the term or is there a history of conflicting meanings? 

Method: A diachronic etymological study of the terms ‘addict,’ ‘addicted’ and ‘addiction,’ informed by contemporary linguistic theory and utilizing primary and secondary sources in Archaic and Classical Latin and in English. We examine three periods: Early Roman Republic, Middle and Late Roman Republic, and Early Modern England. 

Findings: ‘To speak to,’ its earliest meaning, is explained by legal and augural technical usage (5th cent. BCE). As addicere and addictus evolved in the Middle and Late Roman Republic, the notion of enslavement, a secondary derivation from its legal usage, persisted as descriptive and no longer literal. In the Early Modern period, the verb addict meant simply ‘to attach.’ The object of that attachment could be good or bad, imposed or freely chosen. By the 17th century, addiction was mostly positive in the sense of devoting oneself to another person, cause or pursuit. We found no evidence for an early medical model. 

Conclusion: Gambling appears to be the only behavior that could satisfy both original uses; it had a strongly positive meaning (its association with divination), and an equally negative, stigmatizing one. Historically, addiction is an auto-antonym, a word with opposite, conflicting meanings. Recent applications are not a corruption of the word but are rooted in earliest usage.

Richard J. Rosenthal & Suzanne Faris (2019): The etymology and early history of ‘addiction’, Addiction Research & Theory, DOI: 10.1080/16066359.2018.1543412
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United States