Lately, I have been reading Pema Chödrön’s “When Things Fall Apart”, a Buddhist perspective on facing chaos, fear, and death (in its various forms.)

Pema mentions addiction as an escape from our fear of death, and I found myself suddenly wondering about the word addiction itself, its history, and its original meaning.


Addiction, Literally

Etymology is one way of uncovering knowledge that easily gets lost in our everyday usage of language. The internet has made it so simple to find out a word’s origin. Addiction is of Latin origin, and my first guess was that it might translate to something related to commanding (as in: dictation.)

Well, as it tends to happen with dead languages, I guessed wrong. Addiction, I learned, is derived from ad-dicere. Ad translating to towards, dicere meaning to speak – so, literally, Speaking towards”. Let’s translate it to “inclination” or “tendency”.

The word “Addiction” was first used around the year 1600. It was adapted from the Latin “addictio” meaning “devotion”.

So, the early usage of addiction was to describe a person’s tendencies or inclinations, with regards to their habits, preferences, pursuits. It referred to the ways in which someone devotes oneself to this or to that practice. In those days, one could, for example, be described as “self-addicted”, meaning devoted to oneself – or in our modern terms, selfish or self-centered.

Early opium den in San Francisco

Early opium den in San Francisco (Wikipedia)

Opium and the Continent

The very first mention of the modern usage of addiction meaning a (pathological) dependency occurs in the year 1779, where a person’s “inclination” towards tobacco was described. This was an outlier however, and addiction was not used in this new sense again until more than a hundred years later, in 1906. With the old world expanding, exploring and conquering various exotic nations, opium entered the continental consciousness.

Soon after, addiction started referring to dependency, usually on a substance. The original meaning of devotion disappeared, and today, 2015, it is even completely unheard of. In short, Devotion was replaced with dependency.

As the 20th century progressed, and psychology, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy gained widespread popularity, addiction meaning dependency was more broadly applied to cover not just dependencies relating to substances, but also to processes – such as gambling, stealing, lying, or sex.

Tiger Woods Mid-Scandal, 2009

Tiger Woods Mid-Scandal, 2009 (AP Photo / Julie Jacobson)


Living Postmodernism

Sacred practices – devotions – have disappeared nearly completely from our lives. With our mainstream as well as our intellectual culture being cut off from spirituality, metaphysics, or even the mere contemplation of the meaning and purpose of our thoughts, feelings, and actions, we replace the void with materialism, physicalism, and cynicism. Sure enough, our scientific theories followed suit and have become reductionistic, focusing on the physical aspects of reality, and neglecting all the rest.

Definite numbers seem hard to find, but according to the American Psychological Association, in the early 21st century, almost 50% of all American households are now seeking mental health treatment.

Of course, we can’t take language too literally. But to some extent, the ways in which we use our language tells us who we are. It tells us stories of how our collective consciousness changed over time, of values that once were prevalent in the public mind, and which vanished with the changing of the times. It provides a historical context of our present times, showing us where we’ve come from – and where we might be going.