Words in the News


Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

It has been reported that Donald Trump told Republican senators this week that they would look like ‘dopes’ if they couldn’t pass a healthcare bill to replace the Affordable Care Act.

Dope is a noun, verb and adjective with many varied meanings. As well as the ‘stupid person’ meaning the President intended, the noun is commonly used to refer to illegal drugs, especially cannabis, but also those used by some athletes to enhance performance. The verb refers to giving people or animals drugs and has produced the term doping, with its derived compounds such as blood doping. Then there is the noun dopehead and the adjective dopey, meaning stupid or slow. The noun also has other less common meanings, such as the dope on someone or something, meaning inside or secret information.

Like many common English words, dope came from Dutch, comparatively recently as it happens, via Dutch speakers in the US. It was borrowed in the early 19th century from the Dutch ‘doop’ meaning ‘thick dipping sauce’, which in turn came from ‘doopen’, ‘to dip or mix’. This origin survives in some of the noun’s more technical meanings which refer to thick liquids such as lubricants. The drug meanings derive from this ‘thick liquid’ sense, seemingly because opium was consumed in semi-liquid form.

The newest meaning of dope is an adjective used as a general term of approval meaning ‘excellent’ or ‘great’. It has been around since the 1980s at least, but I first heard it on the US sitcom Parks and Recreation where it is used by Tom Haverford, played by Aziz Ansari. For those who haven’t seen the show, Tom is a self-indulgent, trend-obsessed, endlessly inept would-be mover and shaker who is too lazy to make his dreams of wealth come true. He is, you might say, a bit of a dope.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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