The Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) is a huge collection of fiction, nonfiction, magazine, and newspaper writings spanning over 400 million words in total from between 1810 and 2009. As a tool, the COHA allows us to track the use of words and phrases throughout 200 years.
In the modern era – due to drug education, media coverage and, tragically, even broader personal experience – the dangers of substance abuse (including that of risking sudden death) have been made abundantly clear. But has this always been the case?

We compiled a list of words relating to the concept of death, as well as to those of drug and alcohol use—words such as “dying,” “addiction,” and “alcohols” (you can see the full list in the methods section at the end of this page). We then searched COHA for those words. Here are the results:

In the early 1810s, death was referred to about twice as often as in the present day, but drugs and alcohol were hardly referred to at all: In fact, many substances that embody a “modern” concept of  drugs – such as cocaine and heroin – did not yet exist.

What if we count only the instances in which words about death and words about drug and alcohol use occur in proximity? We searched the whole corpus to find where at least one of each category of word appears within 150 characters before or after the other.


One can see that the shape of the graphs somewhat mirrors the trajectory of the drug- and alcohol-related word appearances in the previous graph, perhaps indicating that as long as substances have been mentioned, they have been done so in connection with death. There is one notable point of deviation between the graph shapes, which occurred during the 1930s—the era of prohibition in the United States. Corresponding with this point in time, we see a much larger peak in the frequency of death-and-drug associations than there was for drugs alone. We’ll explore this a little more below.

COHA divides the corpus into fiction, nonfiction, magazine, and newspaper sources, so let’s see how the frequency of proximate death- and drug/alcohol-related words varies among each kind of source: 

The 1930s bump comes from magazines and newspapers, with no such notable increase seen among fiction and nonfiction sources. All four categories show a rise in modern times, but fiction lags behind the other three, with currently only about four nearby appearances per million words compared to around nine to 12 per million in nonfiction, magazines, and newspapers.


To visualize which death-related words are associated with which drug/alcohol-related words, we created a network graph. The death-related words are in red, and the drug/alcohol-related in purple. Lines connect pairs of words that occur in proximity at least five times, and any words that do not occur near any other word at least five times were omitted to keep the diagram to a reasonable size.


The death-related words are mostly concentrated in two of the nine words, “death” and “die,” while the drug-related words are more spread out among 17 words. Some words occur only in proximity to one other word (“opiate” only occurs near “death”), and there is a cluster of drug/alcohol-related words at the right that occur near both “death” and “dying.” Some words have many lines radiating from them, meaning they are used in conjunction with many other words. “Death” and “die” are two such words, of course, but there are words, such as “alcohol,” that are much less common overall and yet have multiple strong connections.



Of course, it’s one thing to look at death- and drug/alcohol-related words, but our understanding of the underlying context is limited unless we include the surrounding words as well. We used the log-likelihood to determine which other words (i.e., non–death- or drug/alcohol-related) were most likely to occur in proximity to our search results in each decade:

1820s: love, heart

1830s: thou/thy, growth, law

1840s: nature, voice, god

1850s: appearance, employ, frighten

1860s: brain, mere

1870s: belief, wild, hour

1880s: store, slave, clothing

1890s: glass, bottle, arsenic

1900s: sir, hesitate, paste

1910s: oh, broken, occasionally

1920s: poison, brother-in-law, soul

1930s: follow, inspector

1940s: sulfa, pneumonia, penicillin

1950s: physician, afternoon

1960s: induce, sudden, acute

1970s: clinic, methadone, instance

1980s: really, national, decision

1990s: kid, rush, hotel

2000s: figure, risk, shoot

As is always the case in a longitudinal analysis of English usage, to our modern perception, the language of the past was often heightened in drama and more poetic. The word drug was associated with an ecstatic loss of reason, similar to that caused by love. Lofty, all-encompassing concepts like nature and god appear, and thou is used even though it had disappeared from common, practical use centuries earlier.

From the mid-19th century to the 1920s, drugs increasingly became associated with poison, such as, for example, arsenic in a glass bottle. The physiological effects began to be written about in the 1860s in tandem with the concept of brain, and the 1940s were dominated by the effects of new drugs sulfa (short for sulfonamide) and penicillin on diseases like pneumonia. Physician appeared in the 1950s, along with medical terms like induce and acute in the 1960s. Methadone clinics entered the vocabulary in the 1970s.

The legal aspect of drugs’ association with death started with law in the 1830s (a decade that also saw the first association of substance use with stunting growth in children). The 1930s included inspector as the prohibition of alcohol was enforced.  

Here are some examples of passages from the Corpus of Historical American English in each decade, showing death- and drug/alcohol-related words in italics and the most commonly associated other words for that decade in bold.

(Excerpted text is reprinted as originally found in COHA.)

1820s: love, heart

    Logan: A Family History, Volume 1 | Neal, John, 1793-1876 | 1822 | FIC

      such love, on a temperament like his? It is purification. It is death. It is an untiring, destroying impulse. It is a drug, so potent, that it exhilarates to madness. It is a drunkenness of the heart, so enervating, so wasting...

1830s: thou/thy, growth, law

    Zula | Anon., 1830-1865 (Dramas of the American Romantic Period) | 1839 | FIC

      Take, Oh! take me, thou death distilling drug  –  Thou art slow. Come my goodly steel, once more Unto thine office; thy last. (Stabs himself.)

    M’Cormac’s Philosophy of Human Nature | n/a | 1837 | MAG

      ... stunts the growth, and leads to imbecility and disease, if not to early death. Children are yearly destroyed by the improper exhibition of drugs.

    A Week of Frailty | O. W. H. | 1831 | MAG

      ...t-then think of the law; and the noose, that “mortal coil” which no man can “shuffle off”; and the scaffold, one drop of which is a dose more sedative than all the “drowsy sirups of the east”...

1840s: nature, voice, god

    Edmond Dantès | Flagg, Edmund | 1844 | FIC

      Well, it’s plain he’s no worse, if he’s no better. Drugs are useless, and he must be left to nature and his amazing constitution. This stupor, this utter death of all the faculties and senses...

    The girl’s reading-book | Sigourney, L. H. (Lydia Howard), 1791-1865 | 1841 | FIC

      ...he watch’d and toil’d and pray’d, Though every dreary dawn reveal’d Some ravage Death had made: Till the fleshless sinews started, And hope no opiate gave, And hoarse and hollow grew her voice, An echo from the grave…

    The Ladye Annabel; or, The Doom of the Poisoner. A Romance by an Unknown Author | Lippard, George, 1822-1854 | 1844 | FIC

      ...while, with glaring eye and voice of horror, she shrieked: “Drink not  –  in God’s name do not drink – the bowl is drugged with death!” He flung the bowl aside, but ere it left his hand it was received in the quick grasp of the monk...

1850s: appearance, employ, frighten

    Liberia; or, Mr. Peyton’s Experiments. Edited by Sarah J. Hale | Hale, Sarah Josepha Buell, 1788-1879 | 1853 | FIC

      ...frightened every one by his terrible howlings. The death of some one, by the ordeal of gedu or sassy-water, a poisonous opiate made from the bark of the sassy-tree, often followed the appearance of this figure...

    Rhymes with reason and without | Shillaber, B. P. (Benjamin Penhallow), 1814-1890 | 1854 | FIC

      ...Some lose themselves in pleasure’s maze, And some the hour are worse employing. Some drug their souls in Cyprian bowers, Lured on to death by venal charms, And cast their fortunes and their powers...

1860s: brain, mere

    The Woman Who Dared | Sargent, Epes, 1813-1880 | 1869 | FIC

      ...All help was vain, and drugs were powerless. Paralysis had struck the heated brain, Driving from mortal hold the consciousness...

    Will the Coming Man drink Wine? | James Parton | 1868 | MAG

      ...when we have taken from a glass of wine the ingredients known to be innutritious, there is scarcely anything left but a grain or two of sugar. Pure alcohol, though a product of highly nutritive substances, is a mere poison, - an absolute poison, - the mortal foe of life...

1870s: belief, wild, hour

    Science and Health, with Key to the Scriptures | Eddy, Mary Baker, 1821-1910 | 1875 | NF is a mortal belief, not divine Principle or Love, which causes a drug to be apparently either poisonous or sanative. The common custom of praying for the recovery of the sick finds help in blind belief...

    Falsehood in the Daily Press | James Parton | 1874 | MAG

      ry class in all countries. More than two of the brightest lights literature has known during the last twenty years as truly died from the effects of alcohol as Edgar Poe did, who was picked up insensible in the streets after a wild drink of many hour

    The Fiend’s Delight | Bierce, Ambrose, 1842-1914? | 1873 | FIC

      Case 81st.  - -  Felo de se. Yow Kow, yellow, male, Chinese, aged 94; found dead on the street; addicted to opium. Autopsy-sixteen hours after death. Slobbering at the mouth; head caved in; immense rigor mortis; eyes dilated and gouged out...

1880s: store, slave, clothing

    Peck’s Bad Boy and His Pa 1883 | Peck, George W. (George Wilbur), 1840-1916 | 1883 | FIC

      ...may be somebody dying for a dose of pills?” “O, darn the drug store. I have got sick of that business, and I have dissolved with the drugger. I have resigned.

    Autobiography of Mark Rutherford, Edited by his friend Reuben Shapcott | Rutherford, Mark, 1831-1913 | 1881 | NF

      But now a new terror developed itself. I began to be afraid that I was becoming a slave to alcohol; that the passion for it would grow upon me, and that I should disgrace myself, and die the most contemptible of all deaths.

    Child’s Health Primer For Primary Classes With Special Reference to the Effects of Alcoholic Drink | Andrews, Jane, 1833-1887 | 1885 | NF put on more clothing and may freeze. He may even, if it is very cold, freeze to death. People, who have not been drinking alcohol are sometimes frozen; but they would have frozen much quicker if they had drunk it.

1890s: glass, bottle, arsenic

    The Lost Lady of Lone | Southworth, Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte, 1819-1899 | 1894 | FIC

       “You will find the bottle and the wine-glass on the table,” said the patient, who was visibly growing feebler. The duke went and brought the stimulant, and administered it to the dying man. “Oh! that revives me! How long have you known that I was your brother?”

    A Singer from the Sea | Barr, Amelia Edith Huddleston, 1831-1919 | 1893 | FIC

      “There be letters worse than death drugs. If you do buy a bottle of arsenic, the man will put its character on the bottle. You see ‘poison’ and you be warned...

1900s: sir, hesitate, paste

    Caleb, The Degenerate | Cotter, Joseph Seamon, Sr., 1861-1949 | 1901 | FIC

      You see conditions! Make your estimate! You think about your trade? Drink! Cigarettes! You’d rob me, sir? Drink! Cocaine! Cigarettes! I’d stake them, sir, against your trade  –  your life! Out! Out! death-worm! Out! Out! You won’t? You will!

    The Genius | Potter, Margaret Horton | 1906 | FIC

      ...He has been conscious only at intervals since the hemorrhage yesterday; and he is also under the influence of opiates.” “He is dying of – what?” “Galloping consumption; and –” The man hesitated. “What?” “Well, it is a complicated case...

    The Blue Flower | Van Dyke, Henry, 1852-1933 | 1902 | FIC

      ...resinous paste in it. He lifted it to his face, and drew a long breath. “Yes,” he said, “it is Gunjab, the most powerful form of Hashish, the narcotic hemp of India. Poor fellow, it saved him from frightful agony. He died in a dream.”

1910s: oh, broken, occasionally

    Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp | Various | 1919 | FIC

      “Oh, glory be to me,” says Bob, “he caint be drug to death! These heroes that I’ve read about were only fools that stuck it out To the end of mortal breath.”

    Barbarians | Chambers, Robert W. (Robert William), 1865-1933 | 1917 | FIC

      ...amorous, impatient they had whirled toward the embraces of Madam Death; the nearer and more powerful perfume had drawn the half-maddened, half-drugged messengers. The spy in the room upstairs, like many Germans, had reasoned wrongly on sound premises. His logic had broken down...

    American contributions to medical science | Burton Jesse Hendrick | 1914 | MAG

      ...had to stand by the bedside and watch his charges slowly die of suffocation; except for what were usually futile attempts to case their agony with narcotics, medical science offered no relief. Occasionally O’Dwyer would try the operation of tracheotomy...

1920s: poison, brother-in-law, soul

    A Reporter at Large | Markey, Morris | 1927 | MAG

      It developed, down in the small type, that the physicians really could not tell the difference between wood alcohol poisoning and acute alcoholism. It developed that most of the people who died were poor devils of the slums, already weak and sick from cold...

    Loewenstein Found | n/a | 1928 | MAG

      Said Brother-in-law Convert, husband of Captain Loewenstein’s late sister: “I want this affair cleared up. If my brother-in-law was drugged we must know about it, if possible. Suicide is out of the question. On the day before his death Captain Loewenstein telephoned...

    The ninth vibration and other stories | Beck, L. Adams (Lily Moresby Adams), -1931 | 1922 | FIC

      ...beloved face across the waters of death and sought in vain. I thought of those Buddhist words of Seneca - “The soul may be and is in the mass of men drugged and silenced by the seductions of sense and the deceptions of the world.

1930s: follow, inspector

    DRY LAW REPEAL URGED BY ATTERBURY AND OTHERS BEFORE HOUSE COMMITTEE; ACT HELD NO ‘AID’ TO ROADS Atterbury Declares It Has Not Affected Men’s Disciplin | RUSSELL OWEN. Copyright, 1930. By | 1930 | NEWS

      ...almost entirely of statistics, being summed up by him as follows: “Of every age group in both sexes, the figures show that there was a decrease in alcoholic cases and deaths in Cook County down to July, 1919, ‘ a low period for the following year, and from then on, in every set of statistics...

    Food and Drug Detectives | Edward R. Keyes | 1939 | MAG

      ...Washington received its first report of deaths resulting from the medicine - nine of them in Tulsa, Okla. - the entire field staff of the Food & Drug Administration - 239 inspectors and chemists - was following up every single ounce of the Elixir. From the manufacturer through branch houses and

1940s: sulfa, pneumonia, penicillin

    Our health in wartime | Louis Israel Dublin | 1944 | MAG

      Only ten years ago one out of every four people who contracted pneumonia died of it within the past five years the introduction of the sulfa drugs has cut its death rate by half...

    Better Odds on Youngsters | n/a | 1947 | MAG

      Doctors give part of the credit to penicillin and other new drugs; e.g., deaths from pneumonia, 1930’s big killer of youngsters under four, have been cut to one-fourth.

1950s: physician, afternoon

    Call The Doctor | E.S. Turner | 1959 | NF

      ...physician, summoned too late, to explain away the patient’s death. Few quacks had any diagnostic ability or knew how to regulate the administration of drugs according to the needs of the individual...

    Forever Babbitt | n/a | 1951 | MAG

      One afternoon he finds her doubled in pain from the need for dope; she is a hopeless addict. Their affair ends just as World War II begins. For Ferris, it means a late reprieve from the “little-death” trap he is in.

1960s: induce, sudden, acute

    Laymen’s Verdict | n/a | 1960 | MAG

      ...have yet to see the physician who will not admit that tobacco causes cancer except the doctors employed by the tobacco companies and the doctor who is addicted. “Ochsner said he had examined the autopsy material on Lartique and was positive he had died of lung cancer induced by excessive smoking.

    Heroin and Death | n/a | 1969 | MAG

      Even when the heroin dose is not strong enough to cause sudden death, its depressive effect...

    Unwise Child | Garrett, Randall, 1927-1987 | 1962 | FIC

      ...delusions amounting to acute paranoia. The final result of the drug’s effect on the brain is death. It wasn’t my blow to the solar plexus, or the sedative that Pasteur gave him...

1970s: clinic, methadone, instance

    Drug-clinic zoning amendment could hurt those who need it; Drug-clinic zoning amendment could hurt those who need it | n/a | 1978 | NEWS

      Bunker is a patient at Scher’s clinic. Bunker implies ‘ that passage of the amendment means death for Chicago’s drug clinics and that hordes of addicts, now living normal lives on methadone, will be flung back on the streets...

    A Reporter at Large | Judson, Horace | 1973 | MAG

      For instance, of the ninety-eight addicts who died in 1969 and 1970 only four were not known to the Drugs Branch. Besides heroin, the clinics had methadone to work with...

1980s: really, national, decision

    Overdosing on Bad Dreams | JAY COCKS | 1984 | MAG

      He died, really, of the cumulative effects not only of the cocaine and heroin that had swollen his brain and bloated his heart but of all these bad dreams.

    Milestones | n/a | 1985 | MAG

      A physician, he applied quantitative research and analysis techniques to highway accidents and deaths, especially those related to alcohol. As national traffic-safety head, he concentrated on federal standards for safe auto design and tougher local and state drunk-driving laws...

    Getting Straight | Jean Seligmann, et al. | 1984 | MAG

      Martha Morrison refers to the “M.D.-eity complex. Doctors say, ‘I prescribe all these drugs, I make life-or-death decisions; it will never happen to me’.

1990s: kid, rush, hotel

    White-style urban woes | Whitman, David | 1996 | MAG

      Photos of those who died young adorn the altar steps at the vigil at South Boston’s Gate of Heaven Church. “Drug deals are happening outside our windows.... kids talking about what store to hit so they could boost that morning...

    Cry wolf / | Hoag, Tami. | 1993 | FIC

      ...dead on the floor of the bateau. Another kill. Another rush. Another dizzying high. Power, more seductive than sex, more addictive than cocaine. Blood, warm and silky, sweet as wine. The pulse of life rushing with fear, pounding, frantic... ebbing, dying. The body is dragged...

    DEATHS IN THE FAMILY; Of the six famous von Erich wrestlers, only one is left in the ring | EVAN MOORE; Staff | 1993 | NEWS

      Frank Brody and a few others went to David’s hotel where they found him dead on the floor of his room. Rumors spread that Brody had found drugs in the room and flushed them down the toilet, but Brody, who was stabbed to death a few years later in a fight with another wrestler in Puerto

2000s: figure, risk, shoot

    In Case Of Attack.. | n/a | 2003 | MAG

      ...reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, followed 1,129 patients. Of those treated with the drugs, 14% died or had another heart attack or a disabling stroke. The figure was 8% for those transferred within 2 hours to a different hospital...

    The Cost of the Katrina Effect | Kalb, Claudia; Murr, Andrew; Raymond, Joan | 2005 | MAG

      ...he disclosed that he was taking HIV medications. Others are concealing their diagnosis and perhaps going without drugs. “People could get sicker faster and may die faster,” says Scalco. Their mental health is at risk, too.

    Jacket, The | nan | 2005 | FIC

   It turned out different, didn’t it? BECKER: I didn’t put you in Alpine Grove. STARKS: No. (Beat) You put me on drugs and then you put me in the Jacket. BECKER: (Stoically) I was sorry when I heard you died. I was, but ... how was I to know you didn’t shoot...

Finding Help for Dangerous Addictions

Over the past 200 years, society has become steadily more aware of drugs and alcohol, as well as the dangers they pose. The damaging and even deadly risks of substance use and dependence are clearer with every passing decade. If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, there's hope to avoid these potentially fatal consequences. At, we provide valuable information about the substance abuse recovery process, as well as access to our treatment directory—designed to help you research and locate rehabilitation programs tailored to meet your needs. Expert addiction treatment can kick start lasting recovery from substance abuse. Call us today at 855-900-9468. Now is the time to take your life back from addiction.


Source: The Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), Brigham Young University,

Making the list: We created a list of death- and drug-related words, then converted them to lemmas (i.e., base words: dying, dies, and died all become die). Then we searched a lemmatized version of COHA for lemmas of drug/alcohol-related words and recorded the document and position of each match (and up to 150 characters before and after), stopping if we encountered a passage omitted from the document for copyright reasons. We searched these snippets for death-related words, kept only the snippets in which they were found, and concatenated overlapping snippets so they would count for only one search result. We ended with 1,157 snippets.

Network graph: We created a graph of words as nodes and co-occurrence frequency as edges, and discarded any edges with a frequency less than five, then any words with no edges. We scaled the area of the nodes according to word frequency. In this graph, none of the frequencies are normalized for the size of the corpus from year to year; only raw counts are used.

Context: We used the Dunning Log-Likelihood method to compare the frequency of words from snippets that occurred in each decade with those from snippets that occurred in every other decade. We discounted common stop words like the and and, death- and drug/alcohol-related words that were our initial search criteria, and words that did not occur in at least two different documents in the decade in question. The top three words with a significance of over 0.001 were reported.


autopsied, autopsies, autopsy, coroner, coroners, corpse, corpses, cremated, death, deaths, deceased, die, died, dies, dying, expired, inquest, inquests, morbidity, mortal, mortalities, mortality, mortals, mortem, mourn, mourned, mourner, mourners, mourning, mournings, mourns, obituaries, obituary, overdosed, untimely


addict, addicted, addicting, addiction, addictions, addicts, alcohol, alcoholic, alcoholics, alcohols, amphetamine, amphetamines, benzodiazepine, benzodiazepines, cannabis, cocaine, dealer, dealers, drug, drugged, drugging, drugs, hallucinogen, hallucinogenic, hallucinogens, heroin, illicit, intravenous, marijuana, mdma, methamphetamine, methamphetamines, narcotic, narcotics, opiate, opiates, opioids, psychoactive, rehab, rehabs, sedative, sedatives, stimulant, stimulants, trafficker, traffickers, trafficking

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