Strange Language
12:21 pm
Tue September 3, 2013

From Gravy To Drugs: Ben Zimmer On The Origin Of "Dope"

We’ve seen lots of sports scandals in the news over the years that have to do with performance-enhancing drugs, commonly referred to as doping. Dope, from the Dutch word doop, is actually a gravy or a sauce, so how did we go from gravy to drugs? Lexicographer Ben Zimmer gives KUOW's Ross Reynolds the straight dope on dope.

Dope Makes Your Mashed Potatoes Delicious

Dutch settlers in American colonies brought over the word doop, which refers to gravy or sauce to put on food. The word evolved to mean anything syrupy, a thick substance or concoction which could be medicinal or related to drugs.

Actually, Don’t Put Dope On Your Mashed Potatoes

Opium drug dens started popping up in American cities in the 19th century. The quality of opium was viscous, therefore referred to as dope, which led to addicts being referred to as dopes.

In its verb form, if you were poisoned, that could be called doping.

Don't Bet On A Horse 'Til You Get The Inside Dope

Doping entered sports via horse racing in the late 19th century. Horses were given drugs to speed them up or slow them down depending on how the gamblers wanted the race to turn out.

Doping horses was so common, a tout (tip giver on a particular race) needed to know all the information on a horse, including whether a horse was doped. This led to the expressions, “straight dope” or “inside dope,” meaning inside information.

What About Calling Someone A Dope?

A dope, meaning a stupid or foolish person, developed on its own track that conveniently converged when opium users started to be called dopey (as if under the influence of opium).

Interview has been edited for clarity.

Produced by Arwen Nicks.

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