Posted by: Didapper PJ15 JAN 2014
You may know the expression “a drug on the market”, meaning a commodity that is no longer in demand and therefore unsellable. But why “drug”?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “drug” first appeared in English as a word with a much broader sense than is used now. It meant any substance — animal, vegetable or mineral — that was employed in various types of manufacturing, and not solely in pharmacy. Over several centuries, the sense became narrowed to the pharmaceutical one. But as late as 1728, the Chambers Cyclopedia defined it as “a general Name for all Spices, and other Commodities, brought from distant Countries, and used in the Business of Medicine, Dying, and the Mechanic Arts”.
And the use of “drug” to mean something worthless dates back four centuries. A book published in 1622 included: “Another Commodity Mineral, namely Copperas, which was sold heretofore … for £10 and £12 the Tun, … hath been so ill governed by Workmen underselling one another, and for want of orderly carriage, that the same is sold under £3 the Tun, and is become a mere Drug out of request, by the abundance made, and indiscreetly vented [vended], bartered or exchanged.”
Although the phrase “a drug on the market” is not recorded before the 1830s, it clearly refers to these older connotations of the word “drug”.