Semantics, Addiction, and Rubbies: The Historical Language of Habit

By the 1930s, the language of addiction was applied to drinkers only when they were using something unusual, something dangerous.

main Marcio Jose Bastos Silva shutterstock_82551697.jpg

When it was formed in 1927, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) was nothing new. It was but one of many government liquor control agencies that emerged after prohibition legislation began to be rescinded in various North American jurisdictions in the first half of the 20th century. It was loosely based upon the Gothenburg system of government regulation, the "disinterested management" model of beverage alcohol sales. It instituted government sale of spirits, and tightly regulated the private sale of beer and wine. In 1934, when legislative change allowed for the sale of regular strength beer and wine in licensed parts of hotels (beer in "beverage rooms" and beer and wine in "dining rooms") it expanded its regulatory gaze accordingly, attempting to ensure that hotel beverage sales were as "disinterested" as possible within a private hospitality industry. Yet, compared to what was going on across Canada by this time, the LCBO was, in so many ways, merely one of many.

And yet (and you knew there was an "and yet" justificatory statement coming) a study of the LCBO can be informative. Set up in the most populous province in Canada, with the second largest land mass of provinces (the Northwest Territories are not included here) the LCBO had to reach far beyond its offices in Toronto to regulate the drinking activities of a diverse population. Moreover, the province of Ontario borders several of those United States, which, after 1933, each had their own much more liberal liquor regulatory regimes. So the board had a challenge: to create a regulated, orderly drinking environment that was good enough to keep Ontarians in the province, out of illegal drinking places, and drinking in a way that did not result in what the temperance forces maintained would be total social chaos.

That is all well and good, and you can read my book when it comes out later this year.  Yet, with the book in the can, I still have some unfinished business and it is a little embarrassing. When I applied for a grant to support this research, I sought a history of medicine grant. I argued that the work of the LCBO would give us insight into the perception of addiction, of how notions of biomedical dysfunction were affected by government regulation, and I aspired to explore the role of government in the medicalization of inebriety. There was certainly some grounding for these expectations. Historian James Nicholls directed me towards the work of the U.K.'s wartime Central Control Board - Liquor Traffic.

Outdoor-Trade-Poster.jpg Among other things, the board investigated the biological effects of drinking, and its investigations were bound in a volume nearly a decade before the LCBO came into existence. Although it concluded that moderate drinking was still OK, it certainly went a long way in exploring various arguments relating to the intersection of immoderate drinking and ill health. But this was the British model, where they paid some serious attention to the doctors.

I was surprised to find that my research material had almost nothing to say about addiction itself. I read the files of about 1,000 licensed hotels in the province, spread throughout six different communities, along with the reports of the LCBO's central office, and rarely was the word addiction even mentioned. Moreover, there was nary a sign of physicians' opinions in the matter, apart from the occasional doctor who might write in to endorse or condemn a beverage room application.

Sterno_ad_1915.jpg Sometimes it is such absences that make you begin to dig deeper. In the case of the LCBO, when I did see the term addiction being used, and it was quite infrequent, it was not usually related to what we might call normal drinking, that is, the consumption of beer, wine, or spirits. Addiction was applied most frequently by far to the consumption of substances like rubbing alcohol, canned heat (gelled alcohol products like Sterno), and other non-potable products.

I began to see a pattern here. Alcohol drinking was becoming normalized; the consumption of other alcohol products, usually undertaken by desperately poor, disenfranchised drunks who were forbidden by the LCBO from purchasing beverage alcohol, was a sign of deviance, of addiction. There were still everyday drunkards, of course, but those who were labelled with the term addict were something worse: the debased wastrel.

There was something more, and this is etymologically fascinating especially for Canadians. In one conference discussion of this topic, an audience member asked me if this is where the term Rubby came from. I had not been aware of the term before. I thought it was Rummy, which would make sense if someone were drinking a lot of rum. Searching the digital newspaper databases of the 1920s and 1930s, I found this term, or Rubby-dub repeatedly applied to hopeless drunks who ran afoul of the law when found to be in possession of rubbing alcohol or canned heat for drinking purposes.

What was even more interesting for Canadians, who, truth be told, are chronically insecure about our place in the world, the term Rubby seems to be a wholly Canadian invention. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the earliest uses of this term in the 1950s, in newspapers in Montreal and Toronto. (I found it used earlier, in Toronto newspapers, and need to contact the OED with my discovery.) There you go, Canadians, Rubby can join poutine as one of our cultural contributions to the world.

But etymological fascination aside, what does this all mean? Why is it significant that the language of addiction was applied to drinkers only -- or at least predominantly -- when they were drinking something unusual which was deemed dangerous? I can only speculate:

rubby-venn-diagram-pic.jpg By the 1930s, when the term addiction was applied to substance use, it was mostly describing illegal drug use. Regardless of the (debatable) physical damage that heroin, morphine, cocaine, or marijuana (among others) were causing, those who used it habitually were addicts. So were Rubbies. It suggests to me a convergence of disease forms, a brief overlap between drugs and alcohol at this time. At conferences in 2010 I illustrated my conjecture with a series of Venn diagrams. I reproduce them here, at left.

What, then, does this all mean? It could be nothing, it could be a preoccupation with semantics. But I think it is something we need to pay attention to more often. The term addiction had context-specific meanings. Since we are writers and become averse to word repetition, we like to mix it up a bit. We might intersperse addiction, inebriety, habit, intoxication, and so on just so our sensitive eyes don't get hammered with the same words. I include myself in this accusation, since I have mixed up the words for the sake of variety many times. I am a reformed addict to variety.

Yet we need to be careful about such usages. If each word has a specific meaning, then we are doing a disservice to history and being anachronistic when we mix up the words simply for the sake of variety.

While there is a lot of work out there on the history of these terms (I think immediately of Tim Hickman, Marty Roth, Mariana Valverde, and David Courtwright), much more research needs to be done on this. What, specifically, did each term mean? Was it linked to some specific interpretation of biological processes? Was it dependent upon the perception of the writer, with some inadvertently mixing up the words, and others being precise?

I don't think this is just semantics. We historians need to be precise, to understand the meaning of the words that people used in the past. Otherwise, we are being presentist, imposing modern understandings upon the ideas of the past. But as to whether this is worth discussing further, you tell me.

Images: 1. Marcio Jose Bastos Silva/Shutterstock; 2-4. ADHS.

This article originally appeared on Points, an Atlantic partner site.