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Wednesday, June 6, 2007   10:45 AM

It's a testament to something or other that drugs has become so closely associated with illegal drugs. The AP styleguide entry on drugs reflects this:

Because the word drugs has come to be used as a synonym for narcotics in recent years, medicine is frequently the better word to specify that an individual is taking medication.

And here, already, we get to what I really want to talk about. More technical definitions to the contrary, narcotic has become a synonym for illegal drug. You know that the prescriptivists have lost the semantic battle when even the AP unblinkingly uses narcotics in this way. A friend of mine who was annoyed by this issue (he claims to consider only the narrow, technical definition accurate) was surprised to find that I would not side with him.

Neither my regular encyclopedia nor my dictionary mentions this broad usage, but at Wikipedia they've acknowledged it and attempted to side-step it thusly:

Many law enforcement officials in the United States inaccurately use the word "narcotic" to refer to any illegal drug or any unlawfully possessed drug. An example is referring to cannabis as a narcotic. Because the term is often used broadly, inaccurately or pejoratively outside medical contexts, most medical professionals prefer the more precise term opioid, which refers to natural, semi-synthetic and synthetic substances that behave pharmacologically like morphine, the primary active constituent of natural opium poppy.

While it's a definite extension of the original meaning, I wouldn't go so far as to call this broader usage of the word "incorrect" — there are probably more police and laypeople out there equating narcotics with illegal drugs than there are doctors and sticklers using the narrower meaning.

And I dare you to say that when you hear police narcotics unit, you actually think they have a different unit for marijuana, cocaine, meth, LSD, etc.

I mean, maybe they do, but psh.

As a copy editor, my initial instinct was to go with the sticklers, because in edited English, language is not a democracy (witness adviser in AP style). However, given that the broader meaning is common usage, I'd let narcotics stand in almost all cases and only worry about narcotic, the adjective, when it was describing a particular drug or its effects. Ninety-percent of the time, the use of narcotic/narcotics will be an issue of precision, not correctness.

P.S. Since I was unaware that this is even an issue, I can't help but find this Columbia Guide to Standard American English entry amusing:

Narcotics is the plural of the noun, and it requires a plural verb: All these narcotics are addictive, but only that narcotic has a deadly narcotic effect.

Doubtless they have such an entry for every noun.

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