by Federico Soldani – 10th May 2021
Dr. Humphry Osmond was a British psychiatrist who worked for a long time in North America and is best known for coining the word ‘psychedelic’.
Below, the few paragraphs in which he described – in his book ‘Predicting the Past. Memos on the Enticing Universe of Possibility’ (1981), produced by Jerome Agel – how he came up with the word ‘psychedelic’.
The book first essay was “Improving on Plato,” followed by many others including “Paradise is Not Artificial,” on Ezra Pound and his “nervous collapse… under brutal conditions in a ‘disciplinary training center’ in Pisa” as well as the “compromise on insanity defense” that led to his many years at St. Elizabeths, a psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C., or the essay entitled “Paranoid Responses to Fatal Disasters” in which he mentioned Aldous Huxley’s book ‘Beyond the Mexique Bay’.
As reported on the book jacket, “Psychiatrist and scientific explorer Humphry Osmond has for over two decades been informing a small circle of colleagues with lucid and illuminating daily commentaries on all areas of contemporary moral, intellectual, and political life. On a range of topics from evolution to death, from socioarchitecture to psychopharmacology, from bushmen to the presidency, Predicting the Past presents his seminal ideas and eminent good sense to an international readership. […]
Among the diverse subjects explored here are madness, the good life, the good death, education, the media, drugs, Typology and Typomethactics, democracy, secrecy, suicide, responsibility, magavitamins, manipulation, medical training, nutrition, alcoholism, imprisonment, twins, authority, world leadership, violence, the death penalty, self-perception, coffee and sugar, courage, war, sex-changing, color blindness, unstructured societies. […]
Dr. Humphry Osmond is a member of the Royal College of Physicians (London) and a professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Alabama. He is the author of twelve other books.
Jerome Agel’s twenty-eight books as author and/or producer include collaborations with Marshall McLuhan, Carl Sagan, Buckminster Fuller, Stanley Kubrick, Isaac Asimov, and Herman Kahn.”
The topic of hallucinogenic drugs nomenclature, including a reference to Osmond’s essay by William Safire in the New York Times – a journalist quoted by Osmond himself – was already treated on PsyPolitics here.
To fall in Hell
or soar angelic,
you’ll need a pinch
The Birth of “Psychedelic”
[ by Humphry Osmond ]
There are not many words whose etymology we are absolutely one hundred percent categorically dead-right certain about. Psychedelic is one of the rare exceptions. There are no disputes or uncertainties about it. We know exactly and to the moment.
In the spring of 1956, I prepared a paper on psychotomimetic agents, like mescaline and LSD, for the New York Academy of Medicine. Psychotomimetic rather begged the question. It suggested that the main function of the drug is to mimic psychoses, whereas anthropologically over the globe it is not the function of these substances at all. A word to express their unique qualities was called for.
The word hallucinogen would not have been appropriate. A psychotomimetic doesn’t always produce a hallucination. Psychotogen has the similar weakness. Deliriant is a wonderful word, but many psychotomimetics are not deliriant. There was the very nice word that Louis Lewin produced in the 1890s – fantastica – but it, too, didn’t fill the bill; it wasn’t neutral enough. Other words were heavily laden in the direction of pathology, medicine, and psychiatry. When I sent my dear friend Aldous Huxley the draft of my paper, I asked if he could think of a suitable new word. By return post came a beautiful word, which is used by some people to this day, phanerothyme. Its roots are phaneroin, a Greek word meaning “to reveal,” and thumos, “the soul.” (The Greeks thought that the diaphragm might be the seat of the soul.) Phanerothyme was wonderful, but I thought that it would not be easy to grasp. I decided that I would try to find a word that would be simpler.
I had at hand a little Latin dictionary for medical use that had some Greek words in it, and I dug in. It seemed to me that psyche should be part of the word. The thumos may not be revealed, but the psyche is certainly altered. I wanted a neutral word that would suggest transcendence in some splendid way. I found delis,* “to reveal.” I put the pair together and came up with psychedelic.
Mr. Huxley had written, “To make this mundane world sublime, take half a gram of phanerothyme.” (Half a gram might have been a rather large dose, but nevertheless. …) I wrote back: “To fall in Hell or soar angelic, you’ll need a pinch of psychedelic.”
That’s all there was to it.
The New York Academy of Medicine published an account of the coinage and a few people began to use it. When that naughty Timothy Leary came along, psychedelic began to be misused.
The ceremonial and religious uses of psychedelics are much older than their recreational uses and abuses. For most of their history, they have been mysterious, dangerous substances and must be treated respectfully.
*As William Safire noted in New York Times, the Greek word is deloun – but unlike Aldous Huxley, though like another Englishman, I have small Latin, and less Greek.
Osmond, H. and Agel, J. (1981). Predicting the past : memos on the enticing universe of possibility. New York; London: Macmillan.
Photo from The Canadian Encyclopaedia online: Dr. Osmond speaking on CFSL Radio, dated 1960
Last Updated on June 17, 2021 by Federico Soldani