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how drug slang affects the way we use and understand drugs

  • Written by Julaine Allan, Senior research fellow, Charles Sturt University

Slang names or street names for drugs are common. From pingers (MDMA), to fishies (GHB) to going into the K-hole (ketamine), slang use marks someone as an insider with knowledge and experience of illicit drug use.

The use of language around drugs is important because people using drugs referred to by slang names could misunderstand what they’re getting.

At the same time, tuning in to drug slang offers researchers and health workers an avenue by which to track patterns of drug use.

Read more: 'My friends are taking MDMA at raves and music festivals. Is it safe?'

A bit of history

Clinicians and people who study drug use have attempted to catalogue slang terms for drug use since the 1930s.

David Maurer, an American linguistics professor who studied the use of language in the American underworld, published the first glossary of drug slang terms in 1936. The aim was to guide law enforcement as well as to inform doctors, parents and teachers about drug use.

The definitions reflect the social and cultural values around drug-taking practices at the time. For example, Maurer’s glossary featured the term “to vipe”, meaning to smoke marijuana. The definition included how beginners were taught special smoking techniques by hostesses, likely sex workers.

Why is drug slang important?

The use of slang indicates a person uses drugs because they know the secret language of a subculture. With this in mind, researchers seek to identify drug subcultures through understanding language use.

In 1979, researchers created a drug slang association test to identify if the number of slang names people knew related to their use of a drug type. The authors found people in prison, who commonly used opiates, knew more slang words for heroin than college students did.

Read more: How the dictionary is totes taking up the vernacular

More recently, one study analysed Twitter posts to identify new slang. Another study used slang terms in Instagram hashtags to document drug use patterns.

For clinicians and researchers, slang offers insights into drug users’ beliefs and behaviours, which can in turn guide interventions. The slang words can be metaphors for the drug effects or appearance, giving health professionals an understanding of a person’s drug use experience.

Researchers also believe they get better results from surveys if they use the same language as people using drugs.

how drug slang affects the way we use and understand drugs The use of slang can indicate to others a person uses drugs. From


As we find ourselves at the height of music festival season, let’s look at a timely example.

MDMA (3,4- methylenedioxymethamphetamine), or ecstasy, is one of the drugs people take most commonly at music festivals. The term “pinger” (or pinga) is thought to be an Australian creation used to refer to MDMA.

Most festival goers attend few events and are only occasional users of illegal drugs, so they may be unfamiliar with slang names and what drug they refer to. The drug they purchase could be completely different to what they expected.

Read more: Explainer: what is nitrous oxide (or nangs) and how dangerous is it?

The first reference to pingers is reported to be in the glossary of an Australian surfing book published in 2003. More recently the word pinger has appeared in several pop culture dictionaries with examples related to drug use. For example:

>“I had so many pingers last night I was tripping balls”.

An Australian video game called Big City Earnez has players collecting “pingaz” – things that look like tablets – in different Melbourne suburbs and hiding from the police.

None of these examples refer to MDMA specifically, but there’s an assumption people know what the word pinger means, including the drug’s use and effects.

how drug slang affects the way we use and understand drugs Drug slang is part of the music festival vernacular. Yvette de Wit/Unsplash

And the term’s use has spread out of Australia. By 2012,, a UK website that regularly reports on popular and emerging drug use, was using the term pinger to describe MDMA.

Slang can also describe ways drugs are used. “Shelving a pinger” refers to inserting a drug in the anus.

Buyer beware

A problem with relying on slang to identify drugs is meanings change over time. It took a few years for pinger to be used in the UK as slang for MDMA. In 2009 police in England and Wales were issued with a list of 3,000 words to learn so they could “stay ahead of criminals”. Pinger was not on the list but ping-on was listed as meaning opium and pingus as the prescription drug Rohypnol (a sedative and muscle relaxant).

Slang terms are also culturally specific. Not all countries use the same slang even when English is the main language. In Ireland “yoke” is a word used to refer to MDMA pills or capsules while “molly” is a common word in the United States. “Shelving a pinger” is called “boofing a roll” in the US. Beyond the likelihood of embarrassment, misunderstanding slang terms can increase the risk of drug-related harms.

Read more: History, not harm, dictates why some drugs are legal and others aren't

And even if you’re clear on the terminology, a label doesn’t mean a drug is necessarily what you think it is. A pinger may have MDMA in it, a combination of drugs or no drugs at all.

The risk of using slang is thinking you know what it means and not asking for clarification. If you’re buying pingers or another drug called by a slang name, it’s important to ask what it is.

Authors: Julaine Allan, Senior research fellow, Charles Sturt University

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