Ideas

Ideas | Mark Peters

Sex, dreck, and rock ‘n’ roll

Powdered heroin is pictured in this undated handout photo courtesy of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said his agency was stepping up efforts to stem sharp increases in deadly heroin overdoses, trafficking in the drug and abuse of prescription narcotics at the root of what he called an "urgent public health crisis." REUTERS/US DEA/Handout via Reuters (UNITED STATES - Tags: DRUGS SOCIETY) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
US DEA/Handout via Reuters
Powdered heroin is pictured in this handout photo courtesy of the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

The opioid crisis is a humanitarian disaster with many tragic consequences — but like everything else in the world, it has its own lingo, specifically drug euphemisms.

Such slang terms — ranging from “a-bomb” to “zapapote” in a list recently released by the DEA Houston Division — are oddly matter-of-fact about how illegal substances circulate and what they do to their consumers. Such lists aren’t put together with the rigor of professional lexicographers, as they’re simply intended to help law-enforcement officials make busts. But they also offer a window into a depressing world for researchers.

The Drug Enforcement Administration list of “Drug Slang Code Words” is a huge narcotic thesaurus, offering a list of synonyms, apparently culled from police reports, on marijuana, amphetamines, cocaine, LSD, and other substances. While some drugs have only one or a few names — the Ritalin list is lonely with only the term “kibbles and bits” — heroin and opiates have a remarkable number of code words from all over the lexical map and more than one language.

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Many terms for heroin involve food (brown sugar, bubble gum, burrito, cheese, gravy, hard candy) while others riff on the physical characteristics of heroin (flea powder, fairy dust, heaven dust). Some terms indicate drug mixtures, such as “la bombita,” which combines heroin and cocaine. That’s one of many Spanish terms: others include “blanco,” “hombre,” and “chorizo.” The large number of Spanish terms is likely a byproduct of the powerful Mexican cartels that distribute heroin.

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A few terms embrace the bleak prospects of drug addiction, as seen in names such as “bad seed,” “foolish powder,” and “dead on arrival.” Those terms are not really euphemisms: they’re more like dysphemisms, which present the truth plainly and bluntly, like calling a cigarette a “coffin nail.” Other terms that wouldn’t seem to inspire much consumer confidence are “dreck,” “dog food,” “antifreeze,” and “slime.” A similar but more established term is “junk,” which has been referring to various narcotics, but mainly heroin, since the 1920s. Other terms do paint a prettier picture of the drug: “lifesaver,” “joy powder,” and “nice and easy” could have been coined by a professional marketer — which drug dealers are, in a way.

Many older terms remain in use, such as “smack,” which has been in print since at least the early 1940s. Another common term, “horse,” has been around since at least 1950 and is part of variations “galloping horse,” “Charlie horse,” and “Mexican horse.” Some terms may not be common knowledge but have a lengthy history, such as “schmeck,” which the OED traces back to 1932. In his 1953 novel “Junkie”—which also spread that term for an addict — William S. Burroughs used a variation of “schmeck” as a synonym for junkie: “schmecker.”

The DEA’s list is good fun for curious word-lovers but isn’t particularly impressive to lexicographers, due to the lack of detail about the terms. Jonathon Green, editor of Green’s Dictionary of Slang, describes such lists as “copious and wide-ranging in content, but invariably un-sourced and thus ultimately un-proven.”

Lumping dozens of terms together willy-nilly is a problem for professional word mavens because, as Green says, “there is no attempt to differentiate between the generic names — some of which last for decades — and the ephemeral, the name attached to a given consignment that is on the street at any one time.” Green said such lists “may be spot-on, but how can one tell.”

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Green questioned the geography and chronology of the terms. Which are Houston-area terms? Which are present in multiple cities? Which are used over time and which are short-term coinages? These are the kinds of questions that historical lexicographers — such as Green, Joan Hall at the Dictionary of American Regional English, and the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary must answer. Historical dictionaries do more than list words and provide definitions: these research-intensive word books provide example sentences over a range of years, tracing the fossil record of each word. DARE also shows where terms are used across the United States. Such lexical sleuths perform a particular and painstaking sort of detective work.

Presumably, law-enforcement agencies don’t have the resources or interest to make anything approaching a historical dictionary, but maybe they should. The data that make a slang list credible to lexicographers — dates, places, examples — would also be helpful to police. Lexical profiling has been used by law enforcement in the past: DARE was famously helpful in tracking down the Unabomber by identifying his regional dialect. Word histories are typically unruly, but they always provide clues.

Mark Peters is the Ideas language writer.