What’s Wrong With The Word “Addict”?

WATCH: What's Wrong With The Word Addict?

The word addict has been around in English since at least the 1500s, adapted from the Latin addictus, meaning “assigned, surrendered.” But the way we talk about people with addiction is changing, and here at Dictionary.com, we’re changing along with it.

In a major update to Dictionary.com, our lexicographers have replaced all instances of addict used as a noun with “a person addicted to” or a “habitual user of.” For example, we no longer define our second sense of user as “one who uses drugs, especially an abuser or addict.” Our definition now reads: “a person who is addicted to or abuses a controlled substance or alcohol; one who uses illegal or addictive drugs.” These and other revisions have improved over 25 entries across our site.

Another big change? Our definition of addict as a noun, which dates back to the late 1800s, now labels that the word is sometimes offensive. We’ve also added an extensive Sensitive Language Note to our revised entry for addict.

But why would a dictionary change a word that’s been around for centuries? The way we use language evolves—and so does Dictionary.com. And when it comes to words around addiction, there’s been a lot of evolution in recent years.

Why calling someone an addict is harmful

“Drug and alcohol addiction was historically considered a moral failing, demonstrating a weakness of character,” explains Dictionary.com Lexicographer Heather Bonikowski. “This disparaging connotation persists in the nouns addict and alcoholic, in spite of our evolving modern understanding of the problem.”

Bonikowski specifically notes alcoholic for reason. She led the implementation of our changes to addict in parallel with revisions to the sometimes offensive noun alcoholic, which we now define as “a person with alcoholism or alcohol use disorder; a person addicted to intoxicating drinks.”

From disparaging slang and informal expressions to technical terms, English has many words for people who—while they may not have alcohol use disorder, another new entry in our dictionary—are habitual drinkers of alcohol. Words used for these people, like lush or dipsomaniac, have been historically glossed using the noun alcoholic; we revised our definitions of these terms to be in line with whole-person language.

Using words like addict to refer to people has become increasingly stigmatizing, Jess Keefe, a Senior Editor with Shatterproof, tells Dictionary.com. Shatterproof is a national nonprofit 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 the noun addict has come to connote to most English speakers: “criminal,” “problem.” And 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.”

Changing societal perception of substance-use disorders means changing the language surrounding the topic of addiction, and as the updates to Dictionary.com show, that’s happening.

How doctors helped drive dictionary changes  

Providing insight into the complex nature of addiction, Bonikowski explains: “Addiction is the complicated result of genetic predisposition intersecting with dysfunctional behavior, neurochemical modification, environmental factors, and social influences. Many major medical associations treat addiction as a disease, in part because it is a chronic condition that is demonstrably present in a person’s neurophysiology.”

Dictionary.com’s updates reflect the change in language surrounding addiction has been led in large part by medical practitioners. 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.

Newsrooms are doing their part, too

Changes have been recorded on a cultural level too. In 2017, the Associated Press (AP) added a new entry to its AP 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 note: “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 Inquirer, Daily 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, Assistant Managing Editor David Sullivan tells Dictionary.com. With proximity to the so-called “Pharmaceutical Belt,” in addition to the effects of the country’s opioid crisis in the greater 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.”

And it’s not just editors and copyeditors: many writers, notably food writers, are also transforming how they characterize foods. Based on the guidance of health experts, these writers are no longer casually describing extremely delicious foods—the sorts of  grub you just can’t resist noshing—as addictive or like crack, as such terminology make light of addictions.

What is person-first language?

The switch from calling a person an addict to constructions like a person addicted to, habitual user, a person with an addiction, and someone facing addiction are in line with what’s called person-first language.

Person-first language puts the human being ahead of their diagnosis. Person-first language has been around for decades, with its champions arguing that it prevents the dehumanizing of people that comes with limiting discussion about them to a disease or condition.

For example, it’s preferred to refer to a person with a physical disability—not a quadrapalgeic, which reduces a whole person to their disability. But speaking of preferences, it’s always advisable to ask a person, if you can, how they prefer to refer to themselves.

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.

Why whole-person language matters

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

Yes, according to science.

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.”


Revisions to addict and alcoholic are a big part of our major dictionary update, but they are only one part. Discover what else is new in our article, “Dictionary.com Releases Its Biggest Update Ever.”

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