Peter R. Martin: Historical Vocabulary of Addiction




         According to the current electronic version of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the noun and adjective junkie and its other versions junky and junkey were derived from the noun and adjective junk which was originally and chiefly a nautical term (“An old or inferior cable or rope; [sometimes] specifically, one used as a fender”) in combination with the suffix y (“Used to form pet names and familiar diminutives. The forms -y and -ie are now almost equally common in proper names as such, but in a few instances one or other spelling is preferred, as Annie, Betty, Sally”).  The first use of junk, now obsolete, dates to 1410 as documented by Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas (1799–1848), British antiquary and author, in A history of the royal navy from the earliest times to the wars of the French Revolution (Nicolas 1847): “La hulk..ove lapparaill..v. ankres dont un de eux est unstokked, un junk, [etc.].”

         The word junk has subsequently had very many quite unrelated meanings: “Old or discarded items or materials that may be reused or recycled, such as used clothing, bottles, scrap metal, worn-out machinery…”; colloquially, “Any objects, possessions, etc., which are considered to be of little or no use or value, or which make a place cluttered…”; in criminal slang, “Jewellery made from inexpensive materials or artificial gemstones…”; “Worthless or absurd ideas, talk, writing... nonsense…”; in baseball, “Pitches that rely on unpredictable movement rather than speed, such as breaking balls and knuckleballs…”; “Food that appeals to popular taste but has little nutritional value, typically having a high sugar and fat content, and often sold pre-prepared for convenience”; in slang, “The male genitals.”; and in computing, “Unsolicited or unwanted email, typically in the form of advertising or promotional material sent to a large number of recipients.”  In addition to these meanings, there is one sense of junk that is widely used in slang and has acquired relevance in the field of addiction, “Any of various intoxicating or narcotic drugs, especially heroin; such drugs collectively.”  This meaning of junk was first used in the English language according to OED in the October 21, 1921 edition of Variety magazine: “We found out later that he was a pipe fiend... He would get a skin full of junk and tell everybody he met to drop him quick.” 

         The slang expression junkie was formed from the last sense of junk, meaning, “A person who is addicted to drugs, especially heroin; a habitual user of drugs. Also occasionally: a drug dealer.”  This expression was first used in the English language in The hobo: the sociology of the homeless man by Nels Anderson (1889–1986), an early American sociologist who studied hobos, urban culture, and work culture (Anderson 1923): “One type of dope fiend is the Junkie. He uses a ‘gun’ or needle to inject morphine or heroin.” The meaning of the word became firmly established in popular culture and literature with publication of the novel Junkie by William Seward Burroughs II (1914–1997), an American writer, visual artist and a primary figure of the Beat Generation (Burroughs 1953): “Lupita got her start with one gram of junk and built up from there to a monopoly of the junk business in Mexico City.”  This was Burroughs’ first published work, a semi-autobiographical novel depicting his life as a drug user and dealer that came to be considered a seminal text on the lifestyle of heroin addicts in the early 1950s.

         Junkie is a highly stigmatizing word which emphasizes membership of the person in the drug using culture in the periphery of society rather than recognizing them as an individual who is suffering from a medical disorder.  There are many other examples of such stigmatizing language still in use that portray a similar lack of respect for the patient that are inconsistent with a humane model of addiction and its treatment as a medical condition (Saitz et al. 2021). These terms minimize the medical nature of the out-of-control and self-distructive behaviors that comprise addiction, which are pathological, can be treated and belong in the realm of psychiatry rather than the legal system as criminal activity.  Much has been written about how the stigma represented by such language can adversely affect the medical care and physician’s ability to alleviate the suffering of individuals who deserve better (Kelly and Westerhoff 2010, Volkow 2020).



Anderson N. The hobo : the sociology of the homeless man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 1923.

Burroughs WS. Junkie: [confessions of an unredeemed drug addict]. New York: ACE Books; 1953.

Kelly JF, Westerhoff CM. Does it matter how we refer to individuals with substance-related conditions? A randomized study of two commonly used terms. Int J Drug Policy. 2010;21(3):202–7.

Nicolas NH. A history of the Royal Navy, from the earliest times to the wars of the French Revolution 1. 1. London: Bentley; 1847.

Saitz R, Miller SC, Fiellin DA, Rosenthal RN. Recommended Use of Terminology in Addiction Medicine. J Addict Med. 2021;15(1).

Volkow ND. Stigma and the toll of addiction. N Engl J Med. 2020;382(14):1289–90.


April 28, 2022