Language & Thinking

The language we use, and the terms we use in that language, affect the way we think about things.

J. S. Bois

Joseph Samuel Bois (1892-1978) was a French born Canadian/American. He was a Jesuit priest who became a clinical psychologist. In his books Explorations in Awareness (1957), and The Art of Awareness (1966), he explored the fields of epistemics and general semantics. He showed how the terms we use shapes our ability to evaluate concepts.

He described how, when translating from his native French into English, he had a problem with the word fleuve. His dictionary said it meant river, but he knew that was not right. He also found stream and creek and brook but none of them were right. He started thinking about the problem, and realized that in French, there were many words that meant a moving body of water, where in English there were only a few. Perhaps it meant that moving bodies of water were more important to the French than to the English.

So he looked for other examples. One he found was the English word snow. How many other words can you think of for “snow”? Well the Inuit, the indigenous people of the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska, have about 20 different words for “snow”, in its various forms. It would be difficult for an Inuk (singular for Inuit) to explain something about snow to the rest of us.

Here are a few words or phrases that shape our thinking, and perhaps limit our comprehension of addiction concepts.


For a long time, there was very little attention on addiction other than alcoholism. Because it was possible to totally abstain from alcohol, that became a cornerstone of addiction recovery. It is also possible to abstain from illegal drugs.

Gambling, on first glance, seems the same. You can abstain from betting for money, at casinos, in card games, at race tracks, or online sports betting. But it is more difficult if the gambling behavior involves the stock market, or running your own business.

With eating addiction, there are still a lot of people who seem to need to find something that is the equivalent of alcohol, that you can abstain from. The most common culprit is sugar. Even if your goal is to abstain from compulsive eating, then you may be thinking of what specific foods you are going to abstain from.

The missing piece is that addiction recovery usually includes some combination of Abstinence and Moderation. Alcoholism has a stronger abstinence component (the alcohol) but may also include many behaviors that should be done moderately. Most folks in AA recognize the term “dry drunk” -- a person who is abstaining from alcohol but not moderating other behavior, or doing all the other things most folks need to do for good, solid recovery.

Hitting Bottom

In the early days of AA, most members were late stage alcoholics. It made sense to think that one had to “hit bottom” before they were ready to do what recovery required. When earlier-stage alcoholics started coming in, the “hitting bottom” was modified to say that you could, through intervention for example, “raise the bottom”. If you relapsed, then maybe what you thought was the bottom wasn’t your true bottom. This phrase just does not help. Instead, we could see that defensiveness usually keeps pace with awareness of consequences, and a formal or informal intervention tries to increase that awareness while lowering defensiveness.


The word control has a connotation of failure unless it is 100% successful. That actually makes sense if we are talking about some mechanism in a car that has to work 100%, or there is a failure.

With things relating to people, including addiction and recovery, the word Control is just too … controlling. Better terms might be guide or influence. Eating moderately makes sense, controlling your eating, not so much.


Finally, an eating addiction word that has no English equivalent. The German word kummerspeck means excess fat gained by emotional eating — specifically, the excessive eating people do in times of stress or sorrow. Literally: grief-bacon. Source: Kummerspeck

Language & Thinking, see also: Dichotomous thinking, Habit & structure, Judgment, Magical thinking, Paradoxes in addiction.

Updated 8 Sep 2015

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Addictionary 2 by Jan & Judy Wilson

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