There is a national discussion raging around the topic of “addiction,” be it “porn addiction,” “opioid addiction,” or “addiction to Game of Thrones.” But, what, exactly, does the word “addiction” mean? To ask the question is to confront a thicket of conflicting and confusing answers. Today, we thought it would be useful to pick up our proverbial machete and start bushwhacking through the definitional undergrowth in hopes of finding some clarity.
In this blog post, we tackle the common, everyday (which is to say, non-clinical) usage of the word “addiction.” This seems like a worthwhile place to start, considering how frequently people claim to be “addicted” to something-or-other these days. The casually expansive use of the word “addiction” in everyday speech leads us to ask: are we all using the word “addiction” the same way, or is “addiction” losing its meaning even as it surges as a topic of national conversation?
Unfortunately, we don’t have the time or resources here at PornHelp to conduct a broad survey of the usage of “addiction” in everyday English. So, as a shorthand proxy for that kind of study, we’ve decided to examine the definition of “addiction” published by Miriam Webster, the vaunted dictionary company. If we are going to find a reasonably reliable “everyday” definition of addiction, we figure, Merriam Webster should be as good a place as any to suss it out.
Merriam Webster offers two definitions of “addiction”, one “simple” and one “full”,” and they’re revealing. The “simple” definition of “addiction” reads:
In contrast, the “full” definition of addiction offers these alternative meanings:
(1) “the quality or state of being addicted;”
(2) “compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal; broadly: persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful.”
Got that? No? Good, because neither do we. What’s going on here? Merriam Webster's “simple” and “full” definitions of “addiction” seem at odds with one another.
On one hand, the “simple” definition of “addiction” covers a swath of behavior that’s so broad as to be almost meaningless. Defined as it is, an “addiction” may or may not cause psychological distress, may or may not require therapeutic intervention, and may or may not destroy lives. The “simple” definition reduces the word “addiction” to a subjective statement about the quantity or enjoyment of a behavior, so that a sentence like “I am addicted to playing slot machines” becomes utterly ambiguous. It’s this usage of the word "addiction" that inspires oft-seen newspaper headlines to ask things like “Can You Really Be Addicted to [name your substance/behavior]?,” falsely implying that the word “really” supplies definitional clarity.
On the other hand, Merriam Webster’s “full” definition whittles the meaning of “addiction” down to the precision of a dirty needle point. To paraphrase that formulation, “addiction” means the state of being hooked on drugs or alcohol, characterized by physical tolerance, withdrawal, and (perhaps) a recognition by the user that the “substance” in question is harmful. This definition, in other words, reduces “addiction” to a wholly negative and necessarily physical status. Only drunks and junkies occupy the realm of “addiction” under this definition. It suggests a need for medical care, and that the condition may be a moral failing. But, despite its seeming clarity, this definition also makes the statement “I’m addicted to playing slot machines” impossible, which in turn conflicts with the accepted recognition of problem gambling as an addictive disorder.
So, there you have it. According to Merriam Webster, the everyday English meaning of “addiction” is either entirely subjective and potentially meaningless, or rigorously objective and fatally restrictive. In other words, parsing the dictionary definition of “addiction’ doesn’t get us very far in clarifying what people mean when they say the word “addiction” in non-clinical settings.
But, the exercise wasn't for naught. By illustrating just how ambiguous our everyday use of the word “addiction” has become, we're reminded that we should try to take care in how we deploy the word “addiction” so that confusion doesn’t creep in. And, we can appreciate the dry irony of the fact that in everyday speech, at least, the word “addiction” seemingly defies overuse and abuse.