- May 6, 2013
- Posted by: Madrigal Admin
- Category: Word of the Week Blog
I have just read a review of a life of Thomas De Quincey, an English writer of the 19th century. His most famous book is Confessions of an English Opium Eater. It was the first book to explore the nature of addiction.
Opium has been known to man for thousands of years. It is believed that most of the ancient civilisations used it as an analgesic (pain-killer) or as an anaesthetic. The word comes directly from the Latin word, opium, which had originally come from the Greek word, opion, for poppy juice.
Opium is harvested manually by scoring the unripe seed-pod and collecting the dried sap or latex. The latex bleeds out of the wound. Because of this alchemists referred to it as lachryma papaveris or poppy’s tears.
De Quincey was heavily addicted to laudanum. Laudanum is a tincture of opium, that is, opium dissolved in alcohol. Laudanum was first concocted by Paracelsus, a Swiss alchemist, who identified its potency as a painkiller. His tincture contained precious things such as gold and crushed pearls. Its name comes from either (or both) the Latin words laudare meaning to praise or ladanum meaning a gum resin. De Quincey was not an opium eater but used the title of the book to associate himself with the exotic habits of the opium addicts of the Middle East. There they ate the pure resin rather than smoked it or took it as a tincture.
De Quincey throughout his life suffered from stomach pains and, although the dangers of addiction were known, he took opium to relieve the pain. Opium was in widespread use during De Quincey’s lifetime and was used to treat a multitude of diseases including diabetes, syphilis and constipation.
Opium contains a mixture of alkaloids including morphine, codeine as well as non-narcotic substances. Codeine was named using the Greek word, kodeia, meaning poppy head. Morphine was first isolated by a German pharmacist, Friedrich Serturner, who called it morphium, after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams.
Alkaloids are a form of naturally-occurring nitrogen compound that can have a range of effects on humans—apart from the opiates that reduce pain many are toxic, poisonous, or narcotic. The term alkaloid was introduced in 1819 by a chemist called Carl F.W. Meissner. It is based on the late Latin root, alkali, which comes from the Arabic, al-qalwī, meaning the ashes of plants (with the Greek suffix -oid meaning -like). Soap was first developed by combining animal fat with potash made from plant ashes. Hence the term alkali was used for substances with caustic effects (i.e. the opposite of acids).
Opium-like substances are properly known as opioids (meaning opium-like). Opiates are the substances derived directly from opium or that contain opium.
De Quincey was a writer and journalist but found it difficult to finish any substantial work while addicted to opium. It was only by writing about his experiences as an opium user that he could write anything of value. His writings on his experiences were very popular and he is considered a pioneer essayist but a lot of his other writing, particularly his novels, have been described as dreck.