Substance-Free Language

When I first heard the phrase “substance-free campus” I thought it was the invention of a particularly witless college administrator, but it turns out to be standard usage at schools that want to brag about banning alcohol, illegal drugs, and—in some cases—tobacco.

The widespread use of the word “substance” to refer to so-called “controlled substances” originated in 1967, along with “the summer of love.” It has its origins in American drug and alcohol laws, and is still used in the US for that purpose. There are plenty of other substances controlled by law which don’t normally receive this label: DDT, lead paint, asbestos, etc. It’s an absurdly vague euphemism.

When I wrote my entry in Common Errors in English Usage about this phrase I joked that it went well with the fad for “virtual education.” “Virtual” was being used at the time to label all kinds of computer-based activities; but that usage faded away so in later editions I changed the language slightly to reflect the dated nature of the joke (p. 280). I couldn’t bring myself to eliminate the quip entirely.

I was reminded of this entry yesterday when I heard one of our local NPR announcers say that support for a broadcast had been provided by a firm from which you can buy a “conflict-free” engagement or wedding ring.

Sounds a lot more useful than a mood ring.

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