Misuse or Abuse?

As we’re getting closed to Hallowe’en, I’ve been seeking out horror books, films, and TV programmes. This is why I’ve been watching The Haunting of Hill House recently on Netflix. It’s OK so far, but not particularly scary, and not in the same league as the novel it’s based on or its 1963 film adaptation. 

Before the last episode I watched, there was an interesting phrase in the content warning during the credits: drug misuse. Odd, I thought, that sounds much less natural than drug abuse, which is a much more common phrase. Why would they say that?

My first instinct was that it doesn’t sound as bad as drug abuse. The latter phrase has much more negative connotations, and perhaps Netflix didn’t want to scare people away by making them think the episode would feature particularly graphic scenes of drug abuse (and the drug misuse in the episode was pretty mild). Drug abuse always means to use drugs in way harmful to oneself or others, but drug misuse could mean using some pills to make a nice mosaic. It’s strictly using them in the wrong way, but not really harmful.

Straightforward enough, and I’m pretty sure that that’s the answer, but then I wondered if there were any difference between the prefixes mis- and ab-.

Even though the words misuse and abuse have different connotations, there isn’t strictly a difference between mis- and ab-. Both basically mean in the wrong way or for the wrong reason. But when I think about words which use these prefixes, ones with ab- do seem to be worse. Abhorrent, abnormal, abject, abuse: all sound much more unpleasant than mistake, misdemeanour, misplace, and misuse.

It could be another of just one of those things. Maybe ab- just sounds inherently worse to us than mis-. It might also be related to the etymology of ab-. It comes from the Latin for away or distant (e.g. abandon, abjure, abscond), and maybe for that reason we tended to use it for things that were so awful that we just wanted to get them away from us and not see them or think about them anymore (abject basically literally means thrown away).

Still, even if drug misuse isn’t as bad as drug abuse, I don’t recommend either!

7 thoughts on “Misuse or Abuse?

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