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How and why to talk like an addict

Addicts speak their own language. They take common words and give them new meaning. A “rig” is the syringe, spoon and tourniquet used to get high. Cop – as in “to cop” – means to buy drugs. “Falling out,” is the unconscious state addicts succumb to when they overdose. 

Narcan, the opioid overdose antidote, can now be used as a verb or noun, like Google. “The cops “Narcanned” the guy four times and he still didn’t respond.”

Bars, Molly, E, H, K – all names of drugs. 

It is a vocabulary intended to mask what they are really talking about. This ever evolving language stymies the efforts of cops and parents to figure out what the heck is going on. As in, “I saw someone with Molly at the party.” Not Molly the girl. Molly the drug.

Also included are words and phrases addicts use to take the edge off of some of their behaviors – like relapse. In the olden days, an alcoholic who relapsed was said to have “fallen off the wagon.” Now we call it a “slip” or say someone is “back out there.” 

I started thinking about the words we use when we speak about drugs and addiction after I recently heard that comedian Chevy Chase went back to rehab. Chase has struggled with addiction for years. His publicist said he was checking himself into treatment for a “tune up,” like Chase is a car. Boy, won’t he be surprised when he gets the bill for that “tune up.”

It’s not just addicts who have their own vocabulary. We all do. We have been saying these words for so long – junkie, dirty, abuse, – that we don’t realize how they contribute to the stigma of addiction. 

Michael Botticelli, head of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy  aka “Drug Czar” – believes tackling stigma means changing how we speak. Botticelli is careful when he speaks. He does not use words like “junkie.” Addiction is not a “habit” like nail biting. It’s a potentially fatal disease.

Botticelli also wants us to stop calling a urine sample that shows the presence of drugs “dirty.”

 “We don’t say for a diabetic whose blood sugar spikes that they have a ‘dirty blood sugar,” Botticelli said. We also don’t call diabetics “sugar abusers.” The word “junkie” comes from the word “junk.”

Words matter in any discussion about addiction because they can stigmatize the disease and anything that stigmatizes the disease discourages people with substance use disorders from seeking help. It can also interfere with a therapist’s ability to treat an addict.


I found this article written by Richard H. Paynter back in 1928 that explains the problem. Paynter was a research psychologist with the Philadelphia Committee for the Clinical Study of Opium Addiction. He wanted to understand the personalities of addicts.

“I became aware of the great complexity of the numerous questions involved, but one thing struck my notice – something that had not been made the object of serious study before,” Paynter wrote. “That was the drug addict’s lingo.”

Paynter suspected that inability of therapists to communicate with addicts in their own language could interfere with their ability to treat them.

“I am persuaded now that the study of the peculiar language activities of drug addicts is perhaps the first step to be undertaken in the understanding of their well-defined though elusive and strange personalities…it seems that as soon one person can speak the language of another each is in a position to understand the other.”

“One taboo question from the psychologist, on moralizing or condemning phrase will prove eternally fatal to rapport with the patient.”

In my own recovery I have found this true. I once worked with a therapist who had little understanding of the 12-Steps. I felt she did not understand how I used the tools I had acquired working the 12-steps to my in dealing with my depression and mania. She was a wonderful woman and therapist. But I couldn’t communicate with her. 

I found a therapist well versed in the 12-steps and she has helped me immensely.

Words matter on many different levels when it understanding and treating addiction. 

I will admit I am guilty of using a lot of inappropriate words when I speak and write about addiction. I still do it all the time.  But if there is one thing I have learned during my recovery, it is that I first must recognize that I have a problem. And I have a problem.

We all have a problem. 

But I am not powerless over this one. 

How and why to talk like an addict

Christine Stapleton

Christine Stapleton has been a journalist for 35 years. She is now an investigative reporter for The Palm Beach Post. In 2006, began writing a blog for PsychCentral called Depression on My Mind. Her latest blog, Addiction Matters, draws on her 19 years of sobriety and her coverage of the drug treatment industry in South Florida.

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APA Reference
Stapleton, C. (2016). How and why to talk like an addict. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 19, 2019, from


Last updated: 30 Oct 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Oct 2016
Published on All rights reserved.