From inebriety to addiction: Terminology and concepts in the UK, 1860-1930

Virginia Berridge, Jennifer Walke, Alex Mold

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The aim of the research presented in this article was to explore how key addiction terminology was used in medical publications in Britain between 1860 and 1930 exploiting the possibilities of digitised resources. Specifically, it sought to identify differences in use of concepts over time and between sources. It also sought to identify if quantitative research on digital resources confirmed conclusions drawn from well-known qualitative research. Keyword searches were carried out in digitised specialist and general medical journals, and successive editions of medical textbooks, chosen to enable comparison within a cross-national European study. We examined 1) First and total usage of terms in the focal period, by journal title; 2) Yearly, five-yearly or decadal usage of terms, by journal title. We found that terms such as “Habit,” “chronic poisoning,” “alcoholism,” and “addiction” were all used regularly in various contexts from 1860. References to “inebriety” and “dipsomania” started in the 1860s; “morphinism” in the 1870s, and “morphinomania” and “narcomania” in the 1880s, with similar trends observed between medical journals. Searches on combined terms further indicated that “habit” and “addiction” featured more in discussions of drugs, rather than alcohol. The combined digital and standardised searches chiefly showed the rise and decline of “inebriety” and of “alcoholism” as terms, and the ascent of “addiction” (applied to drugs only). Methodologically, the chosen approach allowed a clear and detailed picture of the historical use of selected terms, which confirmed existing conclusions but also added new dimensions such as the decline of “alcoholism.” However, the digitised searches also raised a number of unanticipated problems, the implications of which are discussed and which should be considered before over enthusiastic use of such methods.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)88-106
Number of pages19
JournalSocial History of Alcohol and Drugs
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2014


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