What’s Wrong With The Word “Addict”?

WATCH: What's Wrong With The Word Addict?

The word addict dates back to at least the 1500s, adapted from the Latin addictus, meaning “assigned, surrendered.” But, if experts in drug addiction treatment have their way, use of the word addict as a noun will soon see its end date.


Addict
is defined by Dictionary.com as “a person who is addicted to an activity, habit, or substance.” While the definition is technically true, use of the word has become increasingly stigmatizing says Jess Keefe, a senior editor with Shatterproof, a national non-profit focused on educating the public on the disease of addiction.

“There’s a lot of disdain for the people we call ‘addicts,'” Keefe says, “It’s the only medical condition where you’re criminalized for what your body does.” That’s what addict has come to mean to most English speakers. Criminal. Problem. Even to the people who are facing addiction, hearing themselves described as nothing more than an addict can be extremely dehumanizing.

“You start to believe it; you start to internalize it,” Keefe says. ‘If people don’t believe they can get better, they won’t.”

Keefe and her colleagues say changing societal perception of substance-use disorders means changing the language of addiction, and slowly, that’s happening.

How do we change the language of addiction?

In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association published its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) with new language that removed the words abuse and dependence in relation to addictive (and often illegal) substances. In 2017, the director of the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy directed all federal agencies to adjust both internal and external communications to language that adheres to the DSM-5. Organizations from the American Medical Association to the American Society of Addiction Medicine have made similar calls to their membership to adopt non-stigmatizing language for all communications (written and spoken) about addiction.

Changes are being made on a cultural level too. In 2017, the Associated Press added a new entry to its Stylebook—an English grammar style and usage guide used by thousands of publications across the country—that includes guidance to avoid the use of words such as abuse, problem, abuser, and addict.

In their new entry, AP editors noted, “Many researchers and organizations, including the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the International Society of Addiction Journal Editors, agree that stigmatizing or punitive-sounding language can be inaccurate by emphasizing the person, not the disease; can be a barrier to seeking treatment; and can prejudice even clinicians.”

Individual newsrooms have been following suit. In spring 2018, the Philadelphia Media Network, which includes the InquirerDaily News, and Philly.com, put its own kibosh on use of the word addict as a noun. The move was in part due to the AP’s recommendations and in part because of requests by local health officials, Managing Editor David Sullivan tells Dictionary.com. With its location in proximity to the pharmaceutical belt, in addition to the effects of the country’s opioid crisis in the Philly area, an increasing amount of column inches are being devoted to issues of addiction, and that meant making a choice on how to codify language for reporters.

The Philadelphia Media Network’s style guide leaves room for the use of addict in quotes or usage by those who want to self-identify as addict, but it makes a general rule for writers to “use a phrase that respects the individual as a person who is not defined by being addicted — a person in (or with) addiction, an addicted person, and the like.”

What is person-first language?

The switch to calling someone a “person with addiction” or “someone facing addiction” is what’s known as person-first language, a linguistic prescription that literally puts the human being ahead of their diagnosis. Person-first language has been around for decades, with its champions pushing the narrative that it prevents the dehumanizing of people that comes with limiting discussion about them to a disease or condition.

Its application extends beyond addiction, with the Centers for Disease Control and similar organizations requiring person-first language when talking about (or addressing) people with a range of health conditions and disabilities. “A person with cerebral palsy,” for example, is a use case that is encouraged, while calling someone a “CP victim” has been determined to be offensive and disparaging.

The Special Olympics has long been a proponent of person-first language in its campaign to end the usage of the offensive “r-word,” replacing it with more inclusive language that references a person with intellectual disabilities.

How does person-first language help?

Changing the language of addiction and replacing words like addict with more human, person-first descriptors sounds like a good thing, but does it make a difference?

According to science, yes.

In 2010, Harvard Medical School Professor John Kelly conducted two studies to test a theory that exposure to specific terms associated with addiction affect our unconscious biases. In one, Kelly worked with health clinicians, and in another he worked with the general public, presenting each group to descriptions of someone facing a substance-use disorder. In some descriptions, the person was referred to as a “substance abuser,” while in others, they were described as having a “substance-use disorder.”

The findings were even more conclusive and impactful than Kelly anticipated.

“In that study with mental-health clinicians and one that followed with the general-public sample, we found that the ‘abuser’ terminology evoked more negative, punitive, blaming attitudes toward individuals suffering from substance-related conditions than the term ‘substance-use disorder’,” Kelly tells Dictionary.com. “The implications of these findings struck me as being very important given how stigma prevents people from seeking help, and we found that the language we use can systematically bias someone’s viewpoint toward that individual increasing stigma and discrimination.”

As a result of his study, Kelly helped the Recovery Research Institute to create what’s called the Addictionary, a database of addiction-related terms to help both clinicians and the general public find the right words to use when talking about addiction.

So, what’s the final word on the word addict? Here’s what the “Addictionary” has to say:

Don’t say addict. Describe them as “a person with, or suffering from, addiction or substance use disorder.”

After all, a person is a person. They’re more than “just an addict.”

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