2

A “drug on the market” is something in such great supply relative to demand that its price is very low, or it is unsaleable. See for example:

Free Dictionary
drug on the market
A commodity whose supply greatly exceeds the demand for it. For example, Now that asbestos is considered dangerous, asbestos tile is a drug on the market.

A contemporary populist British example may be found in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=efrXfJydUMI
The strapline for this video clip is "NOBODY BUYS IT! Meghan's Merch Is A Drug On The Market As Being Refused By All Distributors:"

This stands in weird contrast with contemporary reality that drugs (in the literal meaning of the word) may command good prices when “on” (in the sense of being “offered in”) the market. They do not necessarily depress the market.

Ngram shows usage (see below) from the 19th century onwards, reaching a peak in the mid 20th century. Most of this usage from 1900 onwards appears to be medical rather than idiomatic . In contrast, the phrase is used idiomatically in many of the examples pre-1900. Here are two examples:

Lectures on the History of Protection in the United States, 1988
William Graham Sumner, Page 59
"In 1868 and 1869, we saw mutton a drug on the market at 8 and 9 cls., when beef was 20. The farmers who had been deluded into relying on tariffs to produce wealth, found that they had to send their sheep to slaughter."

An early example from 1868 is

1868
Wholesale buyers held back , and what little business offered was done in buckskins and pattern cloths , plain cloths being a drug on the market , and very low prices were tendered for woollen hosiery , the quantity of which was far ...

In Skeat’s Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language we find:

Concise Etymological Dictionary

Drug.  (F.)  M.E. drogge, drugge. — O.F. drogue, a drug. Also Ital. and Span. droga.  Origin unknown; perhaps Oriental.  Der. drugg-ist.

A drogue is a device used to slow or stop motion:

Collins
drogue

  1. any funnel-like device, especially one of canvas, used as a sea anchor
  2. a small parachute released behind a jet aircraft to reduce its landing speed

Such a drug (drogue) would act on the market so as to slow or stop it.

May we therefore surmise that the origin of the phrase lies not in any use of drug in the modern sense, but in the idea of something dragging on and slowing the market, rather in the manner that a ship’s motion is slowed by attaching a drogue?

Addendum: Here is the ngram graph.

a drug on the market

15
  • 2
    It's as likely to come from drag as drogue IMO.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 19, 2022 at 7:44
  • The assertion "contemporary reality that drugs command good prices" isn't true, their price varies as any other commodity. Some are expensive (Zolgensma), others are cheap (Ibuprofen). Commented Jul 19, 2022 at 8:43
  • @StuartF because the function of a drogue is to exert a resistive drag on the motion, you may well be correct, but the two are probably inextricable in this usage. Middle French drogue, Dutch droog, German tragen, even Russian droshky (a dragged carriage) all show the same root.
    – Anton
    Commented Jul 19, 2022 at 13:00
  • @WeatherVane point taken in detail, although a (literal) drug on the market cannot generally be assumed to be something of no value. I have edited to make this clearer.
    – Anton
    Commented Jul 19, 2022 at 13:20
  • 2
    You don't appear to be using the modern US meaning of "on the market".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jul 19, 2022 at 13:40

1 Answer 1

3

The most probable and supported origin of drug in the idiom 'a drug on the market' (also with 'in') is from French drogue meaning 'a worthless object, an unpleasant object'1, 'trash, rubbish, cheap stuff'2 (and originally 'drug' as well). The related word drugget also comes from French drogue, where drugget originally referred to a coarse cloth of wool, used for clothing but often put on the floor. OED, too, suggests a connection to the derivative droguet drugget n. and drogue in the sense 'badly dressed' for the etymology of drug, of the sense 'a commodity which is no longer in demand'; however, adds that "further etymology uncertain and disputed". Moreover, OED adds the below in the etymology of drug:

It is normally assumed that the depreciative uses originated from the perception of medicinal substances as being unpleasant to take. Corominas hypothesizes instead that the sense ‘worthless thing’ may have been original, which seems possible, although the Celtic etymology he suggests on the basis of this has not been widely adopted.

The first usage of drug for this sense is from 1622; however, the earliest citation of the phrase 'drug in the market' is from 1804, and the earliest citation of the phrase 'drug on the market' is from 1921, per OED.

Here is the citation from 1622, from OED:

Another commoditie Minerall, namely Copperas,..hath beene so ill gouerned by worke-men vnderselling one another,..and is become a meere drug out of request, by the abundance made and indiscreetly vented, bartered or exchanged.
G. de Malynes Consuetudo i. xlii. 215

Here is the citation from 1804, from OED:

It was in vain that I urged the state of the corn trade during former wars, particularly during the American contest, when com was literally a drug in the market.
Farmer's Mag. Aug. 341

The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (by Robert Hendrickson) mentions the same French drogue connection as the most supported theory; and also provides other plausible origins related to tea/spice trading and the word dreg:

drug on the market. ­We use this expression for “something not in demand, something unsalable because the market is glutted or the woods are full of them.” But since the phrase’s first appearance in 1661 no one has figured out just what it means. What drug is referred to? Is it possibly items of trade like the tea and spices that were sometimes called drugs in the past, and, if so, when in early times were markets ever glutted with such rare commodities? Or is drug here just a pronunciation of dreg in certain English dialects? Take your choice, but the theory that apparently has the most supporters claims that the drug here is from the French word drogue, meaning “rubbish.” The word drug has been used in this sense, as when Robinson Crusoe, discovering coins in a wreck, cried out: “O Drug! what art thou good for?”

Note: The figurative sense of dreg (used mostly in plural as dregs) is "The most worthless part or parts; the base or useless residue; the refuse or offscourings." per OED.

Of trading 'drugs'

Another possible and plausible origin is in the context of trading, as mentioned in the above source, where tea and spices -called drugs in the past also- might have flooded the market so that supply exceeded demand. This is also related to the etymology of the original sense of drug, where the first element of the Middle Dutch phrase drōghe vate ‘barrels of dry goods’ (drōghe meaning dry) might have been mistaken for the contents which included dried herbs as medicines. This plausible origin of the original sense of drug is mentioned both in OED and Etymonline.

Much to my surprise, I've even found a more plausible origin in trading which is also related to the second sense of drug, narcotic substance. It is in the context of opium trading between Britain and China in the late Georgian and early Victorian era, where the phrase 'a drug on/in the market' originated in this period. Here is the relevant excerpt from the book Pacific Century: The Emergence of Modern Pacific Asia (by Mark Borthwick):

The commerce in opium received a further stimulus in 1833, when by an act of Parliament the British East India Company lost its government-approved monopoly of British trade at Guangzhou. At last, the powerful textile lobby had succeeded in toppling its rival. The denial of the trade monopoly, which had been a lucrative source of revenue to the company, preceded the body’s dissolution a few years later (1858) by Queen Victoria.

The immediate effect of the deregulation of the British trade was to cause a flood of new merchants to attempt entry into it, resulting in a vast oversupply of goods being brought to Chinese ports. The trade in opium was no exception, and for a time its price plummeted (the phrase “a drug on the market,” meaning an excessive supply of an item amid saturated demand, comes from this period). Many firms went bankrupt or retired from such commerce.

A connection to 'drag' from the nautical term drogue

I've also found a connection to drag through the origin of the nautical term drogue (a device used to reduce the speed or improve the stability of a boat, similar to a sea anchor); however, it is a conjecture as well. Here is the relevant excerpt from the origin of drogue from The Language of Sailing (by Richard Mayne):

Of uncertain origin, but a probable variation of drag, its spelling influenced by the obsolete Scottish and modern French ‘drogue’, drug (itself of obscure origin and first attested c. 1377). It would be far-fetched to suggest that a drogue was thought to act as a sedative on the ship: but the expression ‘a drug on the market’ is a further instance of apparent inter-relation among ‘drag’, ‘drogue’ and ‘drug’.

First attested (to denote a device attached to a harpoon line to slow down a whale) in 1725 in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, XXXII, 263; in its modern boat-slowing sense, in 1875 in Bedford, Sailor’s Pocket-book (2nd edition), vi, 220.

OED provides a similar etymology of drogue, although gives the year 1874 for the first attestation of the word drogue as a nautical term from Bedford's The sailor's pocket book, 1st edition:

perhaps originally drug , variant of drag n., the form drogue arising through assimilation to drogue , obsolete and Scots form of drug n.1


1 "DROGUE, n. f. au sens de « objet sans valeur, chose de mauvaise qualité », d'où « objet désagréable »." (in the sense of "worthless object, thing of poor quality", hence "unpleasant object".) - https://www.cnrtl.fr/definition/academie9/drogue

2 "DRUGGET, a coarse woollen cloth. (F.) ‘ And, coarsely clad in Norwich drugget, came ;’ Dryden, Mac Flecknoe, 1. 33.—O. F. droguet, ‘a kind of stuff that’s half silk, half wooll;’ Cot. Cf. Span. droguete, Ital. droghetta, a drugget; the latter is given in Meadows, in the Eng.-Ital. section. A dimin., with suffix -et, from F. drogue, (1) a drug; (2) trash, rubbish, stuff; see Hamilton and Legros, French Dict. See Drug." - An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (By Walter W. Skeat)

10
  • This was one of the most challenging questions I've answered, especially in etymology; and one of the best etymology questions in my opinion, thank you for asking. Apparently, the origin of 'drug' for this sense is still disputed by big names; however I've tried to include further research and analysis on the origin of the idiomatic phrase 'a drug on the market'; which goes deeper in the history of trading. The question deserves recognition.
    – ermanen
    Commented Jul 20, 2022 at 22:05
  • 1
    drogue is not rubbish. There are two definitions in the TLFi French dictionary: cnrtl.fr/definition/academie9/drogue The first is about ingredients to make medicines and about drugs like cocaine that are habit forming, basically, while the second from the 19th c. was about a worthless object (un objet sans valeur) and some game. So, I don't see rubbish at all.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 20, 2022 at 22:20
  • @Lambie it is a minor point but Larousse has “ 5. Péjoratif et vieux. Remède fait selon des recettes traditionnelles ; mixture : Confection des drogues et des élixirs”. “Péjoratif” may well justify (although not mean literally) the notion of rubbish.
    – Anton
    Commented Jul 20, 2022 at 22:25
  • 1
    @Lambie I've now added the reference from CNRTL dictionary, thank you for bringing it up. I already know CNRTL and used in my previous answers also; and I've even checked "drogue" there before posting this answer; however I thought it is not a big leap to translate drogue to 'rubbish, trash'; and many credible references mention it. A worthless object and an unpleasant object, as CNRTL puts, strongly refer to 'trash, rubbish' as a more succinct translation. Nevertheless, I've still included CNTRL reference as it is useful.
    – ermanen
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 5:48
  • 1
    Thank you for a most carefully researched answer. It complements and modifies massively my own suppositions. You argue convincingly away from the notion of a retarding drag on the activity of the market. ELU at its best.
    – Anton
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 6:52

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.