Toxic: Poison Is Just the Beginning

Beelzebub_and_them_with_himYesterday, CNN reported that Oxford Dictionaries selected toxic as its word of the year.

Strictly defined as “poisonous,” Oxford Dictionaries says that its research shows that “this year more than ever, people have been using ‘toxic’ to describe a vast array of things, situations, concerns and events.”

I agree, the word has been getting a lot of use lately, but I wondered: Is it really “strictly defined” as “poisonous”?

Kind of. The Oxford English Dictionary does indeed define the word as “of the nature of a poison; poisonous.” However, it also defines toxic as “caused or produced by a poison; due to poisoning.” The American Heritage Dictionary offers much the same, but rephrases things a tad differently: “Capable of causing injury or death, especially by chemical means.”

Not to be outdone, Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) echoes these definitions by associating toxin with “exhibiting symptoms of infection or toxicosis (aka: a pathological condition caused by the action of a poison or toxin),” and then adds a more modern, and dare I say contemporary, take on the word: “extremely harsh, malicious, or harmful.”

That’s zeitgeist-y, for sure, but it still falls a little short, which is why I took a minute to see what a medical dictionary had to say about the term. As suspected, I came across the following in Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary (27th edition):

Toxin a poison; frequently used to refer specifically to a protein produced by some higher plants, certain animals, and pathogenic bacteria, which is highly toxic for other organisms. Such substances are differentiated from the simple chemical poisons and the vegetable alkaloids by their high molecular weight and antigenicity.

If that wasn’t enough, the entry then goes on to list a variety of conditions (e.g., anthrax toxicosis) caused by those aforementioned plants, animals, and bacteria. How’s that for thorough?

Okay, so that’s what toxic means, but where does the word come from? To answer that question, I turned to my etymological dictionaries, all of which tell pretty much the same tale about the word’s origin. Here’s how the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins puts it:

The etymological meaning underlying toxic is of “poisoned arrows.” It’s ultimate source is Greek toxon “bow,” which also gave English toxophily “archery.” From it was derived toxikos “of bows and arrows,” which formed the basis of a noun toxikon “poison for putting on arrows.” Latin took this over as toxicum “poison,” and the medieval Latin derivative toxicus gave English toxic.

Yet, while several books spoke of toxic’s etymology only one, Campbell’s Psychiatric Dictionary (6th Ed.), gives the 4-1-1 on some cool, toxic terms. Among them are:

Toxicomania, a craving for poison (aka: drug dependency)
Toxicophobia, a fear of poison
Toxiphrenia, or schizophrenia  associated with toxic, delirious reaction.

This Week’s Reference News Round-Up


Good day butter lambs! It’s the end of a long week and I’m celebrating by kicking up my heels and digging in to the wordy news of the week. Have a great weekend and enjoy these articles.

And hey, if you like these, drop me a line and I’ll send you an email newsletter brimming with more articles. Don’t worry, I won’t share your email or spam you with other digital irritations. I’m not really set up for that anyhow.

Story of the week:

Merriam-Webster is Watching “Metal”
Metal has been a noun in good standing since the 13th century, and has been used attributively for most of that time, but as these examples show, these days it’s acting like a full-on adjective.

And here are some more ….

Dictionary Picks a Word Most People Have Never Heard of as Word of the Year
An Australian dictionary has chosen “milkshake duck” as its word of 2017, though after the announcement most people said they had never heard of the term. Born in the twittersphere, the word describes an overnight social media sensation whose viral support rapidly dissolves with closer scrutiny.

Merriam-Webster,, and Others Reveal their Words of 2017
Like the Time magazine “person of the year,” words of the year pronouncements  are more exercises in highlighting current societal trends than they are momentous awards.

Thousands Petition Junior Dictionary over Nature Words
More than 50,000 people have signed a petition calling for the Oxford Junior Dictionary to reinstate words related to the natural world.

‘Sycophant’: Mike Pence Provides Teachable Moment for
“There’s a word for a person who would praise someone every 12 seconds,”’s Twitter account posted Thursday, before linking to the dictionary’s entry for “sycophant.

Youthquake, Feminism, Complicit: These Words Defined 2017 
From “feminism” to “youthquake” and “fake news,” these are the words that defined 2017, according to your favorite dictionaries.

Japanese Dictionary’s Definition of “LGBT” Draws Criticism for Inaccuracy on the “T” Part

Critics call for revision to brand-new edition of one of Japan’s most trusted and influential language resources.

Words We’re Watching: ‘Doggo’
Is Merriam-Webster leading the charge to refer to dogs as doggos? Not exactly, but they are keeping an eye on its use.

In This Dictionary Online, for Each Word a Limerick Rhyme
NPR host Noel King offers up news of a mission to rewrite the dictionary in limericks. The online database started as a joke, but it’s gotten nearly 100,000 entries since 2004.

Van Containing 1830s Johnson’s Dictionaries Stolen in Norwich
Police have warned people against buying a pair of 19th Century dictionaries which were in a van which was stolen. The Johnson’s dictionaries, which are worth about £300, date back to the 1830s and were in a delivery van which was stolen in Aylesbury Close, Norwich. Norfolk Police said they were “not the sort of thing you see every day.”

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