Do some incorrect or imprecise terms stick just because English language hasn’t better options?

By: | Post date: 2016-09-05 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: English, Linguistics

Never, never, ever underestimate the power of inertia.

In the instance you cite, of sex addiction vs compulsivity: the distinction is itself fairly new, and the use of the description to describe the patient has not yet stabilised, because the notion of compulsion as a medical condition has not been pervasive. So there’s a huge amount of inertia behind addiction, and an even huger amount of inertia because there hasn’t been until now a term for “one suffering from a compulsion”, to match “addict = one suffering from an addiction”.

If we went to Latin, we would use the past passive participle, find it to be compulsus (cf. addictus), and say that the person is a *compulse. But that hasn’t happened in English with any of the -pulse/-pel verbs. Not least because pulse and impulse as nouns are abstractions.

Since a sufferer of compulsion is grammatically one who is compelled, we could use *compelee. But compel and compulsion have actually diverged—compel is not used in the psychological context.

So, by accident, we don’t have a straightforward derivative word to describe such a patient. What to do, OP, what to do…

… actually this has already been solved. compulsive can be used as a noun to describe someone who exhibits a compulsive disorder: a sex compulsive. This is also something that English does with adjectives; cf. captive prisoner > captive. It sounds odd to us, because compulsive disorder describes the compeller and not the compellee; but it’s better than the alternatives, and it’s already in use.

The grammatical strangeness may slow down the take-up of compulsive; but if there is a compelling (ha!) case for a single word to be used for sufferers of compulsion, it will be taken up anyway.

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