Etymology, Addiction, and Irony

Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at

While researching an historical novel set in 1867 America, I’ve learned how the advancement of science transforms social attitudes and how the origin and meaning of certain words can acquire an ironic twist over the course of time.

Medicine was in a primitive state during and after the Civil War.  The theory of germs had yet to be conceived and, while there were anesthetics like chloroform to dull the pain of surgery, doctors didn’t see the necessity of washing their hands.  They stuck their fingers into wounds to dig out bullets and shrapnel.  They sawed off shattered limbs with unsterilized saws.  Many battlefield injuries were horrific and to relieve the soldiers’ pain following surgery, doctors prescribed morphine – the main active ingredient found in the opium plant.

Named for Morpheus, the Roman god of dreams, morphine was developed in an attempt to produce a form of opium that was less addictive.  When it first appeared in 1810, it was considered a miracle drug.  Not only did it eliminate severe pain, it left the user in a euphoric dream state.  In spite of a few unpleasant side effects, patients craved more and more.  Hospitals had to hire armed guards to stand watch over medical supplies to prevent the inmates from stealing it.  Women, depressed by the drudgery of housework and the vicissitudes of childrearing, were eager to escape into lovely dream states and became dependent on the drug more quickly than men.

As it turned out, morphine proved not less, but more addictive than pure opium.  Upwards of 400,000 wounded veterans, from both North and South, left the battlefield as addicts.  After the war, men who suffered from “Soldier’s heart,” the early term for post-traumatic stress disorder, continued to inject themselves and the epidemic was referred to as “Soldier’s disease.”  By the 1880’s, syringes were sold through the Sears Roebuck & Company catalogue.

It wasn’t only soldiers who needed painkillers.  The general population experienced a variety of ailments and every well-stocked apothecary dispensed laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol), no prescription required.  Ladies of all classes relied on regular cocktails of laudanum for “women’s troubles,” headaches, grief, melancholy, and to quiet their nerves.  Fretful infants and bothersome toddlers went peacefully to sleep after a spoonful of opiated syrup.  Men counted on patent medicines containing opium to cure toothache and impotency and to stimulate hair growth.  People consumed opium as casually and freely as aspirin is consumed today.  And the more they imbibed, the more they wanted.  They couldn’t get enough of the stuff.

Out West, the opioid plague was spreading.  Television tropes to the contrary, Wild Bill Hickock and Kit Carson spent more time in opium dens than saloons.  Dusty cowhands who rode into town looking to get high, didn’t belly up to the bar with a bottle of redeye as often as they toked up in a dimly lit opium den.  Not that alcoholism wasn’t a problem.  To overcome the abuse of intoxicating liquors, referred to as “ardent spirits,” the medical community recommended opium.

Finally, chemists at the Bayer Company in Germany came up with a solution to overcome the scourge of addiction.  Discovered in 1890, diacetylmorphine was heralded as a wonder drug.  It was safe, effective and non-addictive.  Bayer tested it on their employees and they absolutely loved it.  Not only did it abolish their aches and pains, it imbued them with a sense of energy and strength and made them feel young.  Given diacetylmorphine, little children with tuberculosis stopped coughing and the elderly ceased to complain about their rheumatism.  This was the panacea the world had been waiting for.

Diacetylmorphine was a clunky, unappealing sort of a word and in 1898, when Bayer had manufactured enough of the drug to begin mass distribution, they began to search for a more felicitous name for the product.  Their marketing department interviewed a number of employees who had been enjoying the drug’s benefits to see if their comments might suggest a catchier brand name.  Apparently, the remark most often heard was, heroisch, the German word for heroic.  Diacetylmorphine made its users feel like heroes.

Satisfied that they’d hit upon the perfect nomenclature, the company trademarked their invention under the name “Heroin” and began marketing it worldwide.

In the long, bumpy march of history, there is no shortage of irony.

8 thoughts on “Etymology, Addiction, and Irony

  1. There is a wonderful 3 part British series called: Pain, Pus, and Poison. Pain covers the pioneering of anesthesia and pain management, mostly started by dentists, btw, beginning in the late 1700’s. Pus is about controlling infections leading to development of antibiotics and vaccines. Poison covers cancer treatments.


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