This word’s odd story starts WAY back in ancient Greece. Where TOXON meant “bow,” as in the weapon that shoots an arrow. The poisoned arrows used in hunting and war were called TOXIKON (bow) PHARMAKON (drug).

The two-word phrase (bow + drug) meant “archer’s drug.”

Like so many words, though, it gets shortened with time. SO when it makes the jump to Early Latin & French, it’s the “toxicum” part that makes the leap – completely divorcing the word from its original meaning.

And that’s not even the weirdest part.

I mean, how do we get from “bow,” to “poisonous,” to a term that is today used to mean “harmful” in ALL kinds of ways – especially in terms of human behavior?

It’s a hard term to pin down because it’s covering a lot of ground. For example, originally, “poison” always indicated a drink, a tonic, a potion. In French, “enherber” specifically indicated a dangerous plant. But “toxic” ends up being a catchall in our language.

When “toxic” shows up in Early English (1890) – it belongs exclusively to the fields of medicine and biochemistry. Plants are toxic. Chemicals are toxic. Water can be toxic.  

But not people. Not behavior. Not, that is, until 1974.

In 200 years of the Internet Archive’s textual database, the first instance I can find of “toxic” being used in this way — leading to phrases like ‘toxic masculinity,’ ‘toxic relationship,’ ‘toxic workplace,’ etc  — is in a book called “Be The Person You Were Meant To Be.” (Dr. Jerry A Greenwald, 1974).

As far as I can tell, this (at the time best-selling) book is ‘ground zero,’ as it were, for toxic behavioralism. 

The author, a Gestalt therapist, uses terminology that is firmly rooted in Gestalt theory itself.

People grow through taking in an idea or experience and discovering whether it is nourishing (and thus makes it a part of themselves) or toxic (rejects it).

The author seems to disappear after this publication and its followup about ‘toxic relationships.’ But there’s no question that after this, the term “toxic” takes root and firmly finds its place in the popular lexicon.

Full Circle

So … what can we take from this word’s truly odd journey? I can’t help but appreciate the word’s origin in the bow.As in, harm done by one person to another. The ‘archer’s drug.’

Though “toxic” still retains its biochemical senses (as in toxic air, waste, environment, etc), I can’t help but think it’s Ancient Greek roots are telling indeed.

It’s the word we have for the harm we do one another.

That’s the word, bird!