One of the papers presented to the Psychology Postgraduate Affairs Group annual conference in Derby this week argued that there is a tendency to describe relatively harmless hobbies as obsessions or even addictions. The researchers, Michael Larkin and Richard Wood of Nottingham University, suggested that the word has become “a scapegoat for the nineties — a moral label for what society feels isn’t acceptable. Lots of people are being called addicts when they’re just engaging in unusual behaviour”. They mentioned particularly the activities of spending several hours a day watching Star Trek or surfing the Net as examples of mildly anti-social behaviour that has been described as addictive.
Immediately I indulged one of my own minor obsessions by turning the word up in several of my collection of dictionaries. And an interesting exercise it was. To start with, in the sixteenth century, addict was an adjective, not a noun. It came from the Latin addictus, the past participle of addicere. In this the root dicere meant ‘to say’, but it also had a sense of ‘adjudge’ or ‘allot’, so that the whole word meant ‘assigned by decree’. (Dicere is the root also of our dictate and dictionary, so that the phrase “addicted to dictionaries” might be thought an unnecessary repetition.) The English word addict to start with had the sense of being obligated or formally bound to someone else. Pretty soon, though, it took on a reflected meaning of being attached to something through one’s own inclination, or of being devoted to some practice. Examples in the OED down to 1790 refer to gluttony, lust, and “superstitious ceremonies”.
The book Coined by Shakespeare says Shakespeare was the first recorded writer to use addiction, as a relatively neutral word with a sense something like “strong inclination”; in Henry V, the Archbishop of Canterbury could marvel at the king’s knowledge of theology, since before then “his addiction was to courses vain”, meaning he used to like activities of no value or importance. By the 1640s, it was being used in a similarly straightforward way to indicate that one was given to some habit or pursuit; as late as 1858, Gladstone could write about “Their addiction to agricultural pursuits” and this sense remains in use just as much today.
Th adjectival form of addict is long defunct, but the word was pulled out of retirement at the beginning of the twentieth century as a noun for someone whose inclinations towards or devotion to a drug has led to dependence upon it. A new word was needed because it was only at this period that the medical condition was being recognised and concern was beginning to grow. Only a few years after it had been reinvented it began to be used again in the old sense in which addiction has for so long been employed, of someone who is merely devoted to some activity, especially a pastime or sport: the OED has an example from the Westminster Gazette of 1925: “Even many working men are night club addicts”. It is this looser, colloquial usage that concerns the researchers, because they feel it has become more common in the past decade or so. They claim that as a result people are becoming confused about the distinction between addiction and some harmless hobby or activity taken a little too seriously. They instance a British television programme, a popular quiz about programmes called Telly Addicts, as an example of the overuse of the word in inappropriate situations.
I have to say that the lexicographical evidence is against them. There seems no very strong evidence that usage of addict or addiction in what must now be called its figurative sense has changed much in the past decade. And it’s clear from the evidence that the word has had this figurative meaning for centuries, and that it long predates the modern meaning which they take as its canonical one. The concern about drug addiction this century has biased our understanding of the word, but the sense they worry about has been there all along.