Psychedelics – the word likely conjures up all sorts of images and ideas in your mind. But where did this peculiar term come from in the first place? In this post, we’ll take a step back and explore the original meaning behind the word “psychedelic” itself, as an introduction to understanding these fascinating substances.
The Names Before Psychedelics was Coined
Long before the term was coined, plants and chemicals that had extraordinary effects on the mind and perception were given names that focused on their seemingly bizarre mental effects. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, they were referred to as “hallucinogens” – meaning they could generate hallucinations or visions detached from reality. Others called them “psychotomimetics” – a word suggesting they could mimic psychosis by producing delusions or seeing things that weren’t there.
Both of these terminologies carried overtly negative connotations of mental illness and pathology. However, some pioneers researching these substances at the time believed there was far more value to be uncovered if they could understand them better.
Humphry Osmond and Finding a New Word
One of those pioneers was Humphry Osmond, a British-Canadian psychiatrist working in the 1950s. In 1956, Osmond was preparing a presentation for an upcoming conference on a group of fascinating chemicals and natural substances he had been studying, including mescaline, LSD, and psilocybin mushrooms. He intended to find a new name for these compounds that wouldn’t invoke ideas of sickness or psychosis.
After considering many possibilities, he landed on a term he invented himself – psychedelic. Breaking down the etymology, it combined the Greek root “psyche” meaning mind, soul, or spirit, with “deloun” which translates to reveal, manifest, or make visible. Put together, the neologism meant “mind-manifesting” – a concept Osmond felt truly captured the potential of these substances.
In a rhyming couplet contained within his correspondence with the author Aldous Huxley, Osmond neatly encapsulated his new word:
“To fathom hell or go angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic.”
Implications of the Term Psychedelic
Osmond believed psychedelics held promise not just in medicine and science, but in fields like psychology, philosophy, art, and religion. The word reflected his view that they were not simply psychotomimetics, but had far more expansive implications for the human mind and spirit. The term caught on quickly and has stood the test of time, shaping our understanding of this category of compounds for over half a century.
Additional Names and Meanings
While “psychedelic” has become the predominant name used today, these substances have gone by many other labels over time. The variety of terms speaks to the complexity and range of effects that psychedelics can produce.
One of the earliest names was “phantastica” – coined in the early 1900s by a German pharmacologist. Derived from the same root as “fantastic,” it highlighted the visionary and mystical nature of the psychedelic experience. The word never fully caught on, but captured an important aspect of these substances.
The term “hallucinogen” emerged in the 1950s, used by Humphry Osmond and colleagues. As we’ve discussed, it implies these compounds can generate hallucinations – sensory perceptions not directly linked to an external stimulus. While sometimes used interchangeably with psychedelics, hallucinations are only one potential effect among many.
Meaning to mimic psychosis, “psychotomimetic” is another controversial and limiting term. Psychosis entails disconnection from consensus reality, including delusions and hallucinations. While psychedelics may briefly induce such states, equating the experience with full-blown psychosis is misleading.
“Entheogen” was proposed in the 1970s, meaning “generating the divine within.” This word emphasizes psychedelics’ spiritual and mystical capabilities to connect users with notions of the sacred. Unlike psychedelic, which focuses on the mind, entheogen points more directly to transcendent or religious experiences the substances can catalyze.
Empathogen and Entactogen
Lastly, “empathogen” and “entactogen” were introduced in the 1980s to describe drugs like MDMA. They refer to increased empathy and emotional openness produced by these specific compounds. While not classical psychedelics, they highlight the ability to enhance interpersonal closeness.
No perfect term exists to encompass the full breadth of psychedelic substances. However, exploring the diversity of names and meanings only illuminates these fascinating chemicals’ profound nature.