Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Straight Dope on "Doping"

With endless drama swirling around disgraced baseball players like Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez, the word doping has been firmly ensconced in American sports headlines, just as it has been in international coverage of cycling and track and field. How doping came to refer to taking drugs to improve one's athletic performance, however, is a complicated story.

As I describe in my latest "Word on the Street" column for the Wall Street Journal, there's some unreliable information floating around about the origins of the term doping, even from the World Anti-Doping Agency. Their website claims that the word is "probably derived from the Dutch word dop, the name of an alcoholic beverage made of grape skins used by Zulu warriors in order to enhance their prowess in battle." But Dutch language scholars discount this explanation: the authors of Etymologisch woordenboek van het Nederlands (Etymological dictionary of the Dutch language) say such an origin is unlikely.

Even though Dutch is the ultimate source, the preponderance of historical evidence comes from American usage. Dutch doop meaning "sauce, gravy" entered English as spoken in the American colonies, with Washington Irving providing an early example in the satirical periodical Salmagundi published in 1807 (describing one "Philo Dripping-pan" as having a "love of what the learned Dutch call doup"). From there, dope took on a number of related meanings, often denoting thick, syrupy substances ingested in various ways.

One such substance was opium in the form used for smoking. The earliest examples I've found for the dope of the opium den comes from articles appearing in the New York City newspaper Truth, which ran a number of reports on "opium fiends" in 1883:

Interested but impecunious fiends...receive therefor a commission, which immediately reverts to the proprietor in exchange for a pipe privilege and a shell of "dope" (opium).
Truth, Mar. 6, 1883

Alexander was "hitting the flute" vigorously and rapidly getting to the bottom of "a hop toy of dope," which is "fiend patter" for smoking a considerable quantity of opium. The "dope" is cheap, and the joint-keeper does not catechise them as to whether or not they are minors.
Truth, Nov. 13, 1883

Meanwhile, dope was also being used as a verb both positively — for applying medicinal preparations — and negatively — for slipping a poisonous or debilitating drug into food or drink. Just as a person could be doped, a race-horse could be given an illicit substance, either to give it a boost or to handicap it, according to how gambling interests wanted the horse to finish. (The dope given to horses could range from whiskey to cocaine.)  I found references to horses getting doped on the West Coast as early as 1873:

The race last Saturday, at Baker City [Oregon], between Ross' mare and the Sturgill horse, half a mile, was won by the latter. The mare was two lengths ahead the first thirty yards, but suddenly let up, and was badly beaten. There is no doubt but that foul play was the cause of her losing, the mare having been "doped" by some one interested in the horse winning.
—Idaho Statesman, July 31, 1873

The La Grand Sentinel says: "It is understood that Rose's mare Maria was doped at Baker City on the occasion of her late race with the Sturgill horse."
—San Francisco Bulletin, Aug. 18, 1873

His trainer is doubtful of his ability to get away with such a horse as Joe Daniels, especially since his experience with him in the race at Sacramento, where many thought he was "doped."
—San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 16, 1873

Doping was so prevalent in the racing world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that dope itself came to stand for the tips on each horse and its expected performance in a race — giving us such expressions as "the inside dope" and "the straight dope." A Jan. 9, 1893 article in the New York Tribune, for instance, described the "Dope Book" as "the records taken from the daily papers and pasted in a scrap book" by racing touts keeping track of the background of each horse.

The doping of human athletes started to become a staple of the sports pages as early as 1928, with the first attempt to ban performance-enhancing substances by the International Amateur Athletic Federation. The Boston Globe, on July 28 of that year, reported the organization's "proposal to suspend from amateur athletes any person involved in doping competitors 'with drugs or stimulants internally, by hypodermic, or other methods.'"

Eighty-five years later, sports groups on both the amateur and professional levels continue to struggle with the definition of doping. Interestingly enough, doping has been borrowed back into Dutch, returning the word to its early homeland. The English term doping, in fact, shows up in many European languages as a loanword. It's a dubious linguistic legacy of shady competitive practices going back centuries.


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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Monday August 19th 2013, 6:58 PM
Comment by: Craig J. (Mundelein, IL)
I believe "dope" has also been used as slang for "good", or "excellent".
Tuesday August 20th 2013, 1:40 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I think that, as a kid in the 50s, we used "dope" as a name for the paint we applied to airplane models. Or was it the glue? Maybe someone remembers. In any case, both the paint and glue were headily aromatic, and breathing the fumes could make you feel weird.

Also, "dope" was a slang put-down for someone slow or stupid, and that sense was related the druggy feeling of sniffing glue--it made you feel "dopey" or "doped up."

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