Renowned writer and critic Luc Sante turns 66 on May 25. Read his delirious exploration of a word below, originally published in the November/December, 2004 edition of High Times.
You have to keep your eye on the past. Not only is it not dead yet, but it can sometimes jump up and bite you on the ankle. Not long ago, while reading the 1921 memoirs of James L. Ford, a New York theater critic and man-about-town, I ran across the following:
“Many years ago, when prairie schooners were the means of transit across the continent, there hung from the axle-tree a bucket of black wagon grease containing what was called a daub stick with which the lubricant was applied. The earliest American frequenters of the Chinese joints in San Francisco were men who had crossed from the east in these prairie schooners and as the word ‘daub’ had become corrupted into ‘dope,’ the opium paste which looked exactly like the axle-grease, acquired its name by a quite natural process.”
I promptly looked up dope in an etymological dictionary, which told me that the word derives from the Dutch doop, meaning “sauce” (Ford was wrong about daub).
Instantly I saw before me a panorama, like a post-office mural painted by the WPA: Dutch burghers in New Amsterdam, wearing high-crowned hats and knee breeches, spooning gravy over the Sunday roast, merged into pioneers, in homespun and gingham, on a dusty track in an endless field of waving rye, swabbing the wheel assembly of a Conestoga wagon with some kind of black gunk. These blended into a shadowy crowd, some wearing queues and skullcaps, others in derbies or picture hats, bent over long bamboo pipes of burbling yen pock from which plumes of smoke curled up into a cloud that, as it drifted through time, collected spiraling fumes from the reefers of Harlem rent-party revelers, the joints of Human Be-In votaries, and the blunts of an assortment of O.G.’s on a stoop. There was your cavalcade of American history, all bound together by one simple monosyllabic word!
The word may have gone out of business in Dutch (doop now means, of all things, “christening”), but in America its career has been even more dizzyingly various than my tableau would suggest. Not so long ago, it referred to molasses, to ice-cream toppings, to soda pop—was it the gooey syrup or the onetime cocaine content that caused Coca-Cola to be called “dope” in the South for most of the 20th century? It has meant any kind of lubricant, glue, poison, insecticide, incinerant, medicine, liquor, coffee or unidentified gumbo. It has signified information, news, esoteric lore—even spread out amorphously to take in just about any sort of thing, stuff or business. As a verb, meanwhile, it could mean “to poison,” “to lubricate,” “to medicate,” “to adulterate,” “to predict,” “to figure out” or “to dawdle.” At least for the first half of the 20th century, it was the all-purpose tool, the Swiss Army knife of the American language, and no substitute—not even shit—has been able to cover all of its many functions. Yes, the word also means “idiot,” but that sense is from the British Isles and has a completely different etymology, either from dupe or from daup, an English dialect word meaning “carrion crow.”
But all of those other denotations and connotations derive from the transubstantiation of axle grease into opium. The meanings related to cognition, for example—“data,” “inside knowledge,” “to suss out,” “to prognosticate”—ultimately descend from the unfortunate practice of hopping up racehorses, information pertaining to which could make anyone a mahatma at the track. Every other application of the word refers to substances—dark, viscous, sticky and of complex, multifaceted, uncertain, dubious, speculative or hazardous composition or employment. You could say that dope, a purely and utterly American word, stands for the familiar unknown. It is the stuff in the cabinet, under the stairs, out in the tool shed, in an unlabeled jar, pooled at the bottom of an old tin can; stuff you use without really knowing much about it, stuff that works but that you don’t care to inquire too deeply about. This describes an enormous category in American life.
In our society, a great deal of business is concealed under 10-dollar words, trademarks, cop talk and quasi-scientific jargon that to the lay ear simply registers as “dope.” The ingredients list on a box of cookies might as well read, approximately: flour, butter, sugar, dope. Much breathless packaging says, in effect, “Now With Added Dope!” Spokespersons for energy companies, being lobbed softballs by congressional subcomittees on C-SPAN, reply with verbiage that can nearly always be translated as: “We plan to invest in more dope.” If pharmaceutical advertising were stripped of its misleading charts and perspiration-free images, the industry would be stuck with saying pretty much the same thing in every instance: “Our dope is really great!” Of course it’s nice that we can establish the presence of, for example, potassium sorbate, D&C Red No. 40, chlorinated isocyanurate and dextromethorphan hydrobromide, and have the ability to look them up and maybe figure out what they might do to us, but unless you’re a chemist or a consumer advocate, how often have you bothered? It’s all dope.
Think again of that miracle, when axle grease was transformed into opium. The throng in attendance included people who had abandoned everything they had known growing up in order to make a better life for themselves, had hocked most of their assets to pay for the journey, had crossed the plains, the high desert and the Sierra Nevada in rattling wagons subject to the elements—or had crossed the Pacific in the sweltering, overcrowded holds of sailing ships with few rations and zero comforts. Now, at the end of the journey, having ascertained that El Dorado was nowhere in sight, they decided they might as well go kick the gong around. The Chinese, who supplied the stuff, had had it foisted upon them long before by the British East India Company, but the Americans would probably only know of it as a tincture, dissolved in alcohol, available at drugstores. Now they took a look at the black gunk and it reminded them of the substance that greased their wheels. After a few puffs, they decided that the similarity extended to function: This shit would grease their wheels as well, in a different sort of way. And so it has. Dope—meaning everything from nicotine to serotonin-reuptake inhibitors and from silicone implants to petroleum additives—has been doing the job for well over a century. You just can’t call it dope anymore. You wouldn’t want people to think it had anything to do with pleasure.
Featured illustration by Mu Wen Pan.