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Drug on the market

Q From Ross Higson: I wonder if you could explain the origins of the expression like a drug on the market. A quick internet search fails to turn up an explanation of the origin of the phrase. It usually appears as a somewhat pejorative expression, but it’s not clear whether it originally meant something that sold in large numbers, something that suppressed the sales of competitive products, or something that wouldn’t sell at any price.

A The usual meaning of the idiom a drug on the market (also often as a drug in the market) is that it’s a commodity no longer in demand and so is commercially valueless or unsaleable.

The idiom didn’t arrive until the 1830s but in that sense drug by itself is known from the seventeenth century. Its first appearance is this, worth quoting at some length to give a feeling for the context:

Another Commodity Mineral, namely Copperas, which was sold heretofore (when there was Letters Patents for the sole making thereof) for £10 and £12 the Tun, whereof a great Trade might have been made for other Countries; hath been so ill governed by Workmen underselling one another, and for want of orderly carriage, that the same is sold under £3 the Tun, and is become a mere Drug out of request, by the abundance made, and indiscreetly vented, bartered or exchanged,

Consuetudo, vel Lex Mercatoria; or, The Ancient Law-Merchant, by Gerard de Malynes, London, 1622. Spelling lightly modernised. De Malynes was a Dutch merchant settled in London, a writer on economics and a spy for the English government. Vented is from the verb vent, common at the time, meaning to sell (it’s an old form of vend).

That’s where the firm facts end. There’s long been some doubt where drug comes from in this sense. The problem, of course, is trying to fit the usual sense of the word to the meaning of the idiom. And there’s no other noun of closely similar spelling in the language that might be its source.

It is known from a verb, of course, as drug is the old strong past tense of drag, now dialectal or regional. Before I looked into the matter, I guessed the idiom might have come from that verb in the sense of an impediment. In possible support of that theory, many examples of drag in/on the market exist:

The oil and gas sector acted as a drag on the market after crude oil on the New York Mercantile Exchange for July delivery dropped to around $98 a barrel.

The Herald (Glasgow); 8 Jun. 2011

However, this form didn’t start to appear in the written record until the 1840s, after the drug in/on the market form had become established, and more than two centuries after drug by itself. A connection may exist the other way around, with drug having being taken to be the past tense of drug and being replaced by drag through a hypercorrection. Helping the change would have been the use of drag for a nuisance, bore, or hindrance, though that’s slightly later still, from the 1850s; that comes from drag in the sense of the slow and impeded movement of a heavy object.

The Oxford English Dictionary includes the idiomatic phrase in the entry for the medicinal compound and considers it to be the same word. As the OED lays it out, the story behind it is intriguing.

Drug first appeared in English in a much wider sense than we use it now. It meant any substance — animal, vegetable or mineral — that was employed in various types of manufacturing, not solely pharmacy. It took several centuries to narrow its sense to the medical one — as late as 1728, the Chambers Cyclopedia defined the word thus: “a general Name for all Spices, and other Commodities, brought from distant Countries, and used in the Business of Medicine, Dying, and the Mechanic Arts”.

The OED suggests that the source of the sense in the idiom may lie not in English but in French. In that language, from the fifteenth century on, drogue meant an ingredient used in chemistry or pharmacy — today it means a drug in the restricted sense of an addictive substance — and is the source of our drug. But it also had the sense of something of poor quality or worthless, a person whom one doesn’t value, or poor merchandise; as an adjective it could mean poorly dressed. The deprecatory uses may have come about through the perception of medicinal substances as being unpleasant to take. It seems that this secondary sense later resurfaced in English as the forebear of the idiom.

Page created 3 Sep. 2011

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Last modified: 3 September 2011.