Question: In recent media reports on the possible physiological mechanism of drug addiction, a brain chemical called "dopamine" was mentioned. It would be quite a coincidence if something called dopamine was what caused dope addicts. What is the origin of the word "dope" and which came first - the discovery and naming of dopamine or the use of the word "dope" in the vernacular?Answer: Late in the 19th century, "dope" was a general term for various thick or pasty preparations or mixtures, such as insect repellent, face cream, and a lubricant for skis. At the same time "dope" was also a slang term for "medicine."

The "narcotic" sense of "dope" was yet another late 19th century slang application of the word. Sometimes it referred specifically to opium, which in the form of a syrupy liquid was used for smoking. ("Opium" had also long been used figuratively for anything with a narcotic effect.) The precursor of all these senses of "dope" is a Dutch word, "doop," which means "sauce," and "dope" has been used dialectically in English for ice cream topping and gravy, too.

The amino acid "dopa" was first identified and named in 1917. Its name is an acronym of "dihydroxyphenylalanine," a word formed from "dihydr-," which means "combined with two hydrogen atoms," and "oxy-," meaning "containing oxygen," plus "phenyl," which refers to a specific type of atom group, and "alanine," an amino acid. Dopamine was identified in 1959 as a substance formed by dopa in the brain. A deficiency in dopamine was soon recognized as being associated with Parkinson's disease, and a form of dopa known as L-dopa has been effective in treating that disease. The word "dopamine" comes from the combination of "dopa" and "amine."

As you note, recent discoveries have linked dopamine, as a neurotransmitter tied to sensations of pleasure and well-being, with drug addiction. When dopa was first named, however, no one even knew about neurotransmitters, and you can see that the relationship of "dopamine" to "dope" addiction is indeed pure coincidence.

Question: I am at a loss as to the use of the word "dis." Please explain its origin and meaning.

Answer: "Dis" is a relatively recent addition to the English language, first attested in print in 1986. It is a slang term, originating in the vernacular of the hip-hop culture, and its spoken use undoubtedly dates back a number of years earlier. Probably short for "disrespect," "dis" means "to treat with disrespect or contempt" or "to find fault with or criticize." According to the book Flappers to Rappers by Tom Dalzell, hip-hop is rich with words meaning "to insult." Besides "dis," there is "answer," "dog," "fade," "play," "riff on," "shoot on," "toast," and "woof," to name just a sampling. Dalzell also notes that "dis" was a slang term in the 1950s as well, referring back then to a dissipated person.

Question: Could you please explain the origin of the expression, "close, but no cigar"?

Answer: "Close, but no cigar," meaning "almost, but not quite," gained popularity in the United States in the early part of this century. It originated at fairs and carnivals, where it was the cry of the carnies beating another poor sucker out of his money.

Just as they do today, fairs in the early 1900s often included contests of strength, marksmanship, or dexterity, usually aimed particularly to entice young men. A winner would take home not a stuffed animal, the common prize today, but a cigar. The operators naturally wanted to tip the odds in their favor, so the games were often rigged to put success just out of the contestant's reach, prompting repeated attempts. More often than not, however, the contestant would be rewarded with no more than the carny's call, "Close, but no cigar." It has now settled into the language as a sort of catchphrase used in varying contexts removed from the world of the midway.