Etymology Usage

Is crack addictive or addicting?

Q: Is the proper word “addictive” or “addicting”? I can find only “addictive” in my dictionary.

A: Both adjectives are OK, though “addictive” is older and more popular with speakers of English as well as the lexicographers who put together dictionaries.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) have entries for “addictive,” but not “addicting.”

(AH does include the participle “addicting,” minus a definition, in its entry for the verb “addict.”)

However, the Oxford English Dictionary has adjectival entries for “addicting” as well as “addictive.”

And some googling suggests that a lot of people are addicted to both: “addictive,”  58.7 million hits, versus “addicting,” 22.7 million.

The adjective “addictive,” according to published references in the OED, first showed up in the late 19th century.

In its original, pharmaceutical  sense, the dictionary says, it refers to “a drug or other psychoactive substance: capable of creating addiction or dependence.”

The first citation is from an 1891 issue of the Medical Temperance Journal, a publication of the National Temperance League in London: “Narcotic—Addictive—Opium—Alcohol—Cocaine.”

In the early 1960s, according to OED references, the meaning of “addictive” widened to include anything “regarded as capable of creating a dependence likened to that of addiction.”

Here’s an example from a 1962 issue of Film Quarterly: “Critical debates seem to be addictive as well as contagious.”

As for “addicting,” it first showed up in print in a 1932 issue of Science News-Letter (now called Science News): “Morphine, for instance, is strongly addicting.”

The OED says it means the same as “addictive.”

Both words were formed by adding suffixes to a much older word, the verb “addict,” which first appeared in English in the 16th century.

To “addict” originally mean to hand over someone or something in accordance with a judicial decision. The OED says this sense, which comes from Roman law, is now historical.

It was soon used in the sense of to “bind or attach oneself to a person, party, or cause” as well as to “devote oneself to as a servant, adherent, or disciple.”

This sense is now obsolete, but here’s an example from Trollope’s 1857 novel Barchester Towers (which we’ve recently reread):

“He had addicted himself to a party in religion, and having done so had received that benefit which most men do who become partisans in such a cause.”

Most of the other senses in the OED entry for the verb “addict” are now archaic, rare, or obsolete.

Today, of course, the verb usually means to be hooked (or to hook someone else) on a habit-forming drug or other compulsion—like video games, politics, or fries.

The noun “addict,” by the way, didn’t appear until the late 19th century. Here’s the first citation in the OED, from an 1899 issue of the Illinois Medical Journal:

“Indulgers in stimulating food, gluttonous feeders, tea and coffee addicts, are much more prone to beget degenerate and inebriate offspring than are the moderate users of alcohol with generally temperate habits.”


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