accents & prescriptivism

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Thu Sep 20 15:13:28 UTC 2001

Laurence Horn writes, regarding the druggist who dispensed Opium Pills
by mistake for Opening Pills: "No wonder they switched to written
prescriptions (albeit famously in illegible form)", and Douglas Wilson
replies: "I'm not sure prescriptions were required in 1830, even for

Opium was sold over the counter.  I have a story about a man who went
into a druggist, bought a couple of opium pills, and popped them into
his mouth.  The druggist supposed that he was trying to commit suicide
and called for help, but the man explained that it was just his morning
eye-opener.  The other recreational drug used in the 1820s -- other
than alcohol, of course -- was nitrous oxide.  A woman wrote to one of
the papers that her young daughter had been buying nitrous oxide in a
bladder and sucking it out through a straw, so that she and her friends
ran about the back yard like witches.  The editor sternly remarked that
perhaps druggists should be more careful about whom they sold the stuff
to.  Nitrous oxide was also administered as part of stage shows.
Members of the audiences would volunteer to take it, and the rest would
be amused by their bizarre behavior while under the influence.  A
report described it as sweet in taste, and noted that those who have
once tried it want to use it again.  Its medicinal use wasn't
discovered for about 20 years -- the 1840s, I think.

The good old days.

The anecdotes above are from memory.  If anyone has any need for the
exact citations, let me know and I will dig them out.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern
Univ. Pr., 1998.

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