Getting the Irish Times via RSS as I do, I occasionally suffer some slight bemusement when I see a headline without context (I've sort-of mentioned this phenomenon previously). The headline on this particular occasion — Over 51,000 illegal drugs seized — caused confusion for slightly different reasons; I just assumed (but wasn't entirely sure) that it was a bad headline.
"Pah!" quoth I to no one in particular. "Fifty thousand drugs? Surely not. They must mean €50 000 worth of drugs, or perhaps fifty thousand, er..."
Okay, that's why they did it. There was no pithy way (that sprung to my mind) of saying "tablets or other similar items". The nearest I could manage was "units of illegal drugs", and that could generously be described as "inelegant" in the context of a headline.
So the sub ed failed in his job, and gave us a crappy headline.
Except he didn't.
As it turns out, my initial interpretation was indeed correct. There were indeed 51 000 individual tablets, potions and unguents. Responsibility for this inexactitudinous abomination, however, lay not with the headline writer, but with he who penned the article. This phraseology is inflicted on us throughout the entire length of the piece.
By the way, you're invited to make your own comments on the fact that a story about illegal drugs was written by someone called "Charlie".
Anyway, normally I wouldn't bother mentioning this sort of thing, but this is a special occasion. Words mutate all the time, but rarely does one take note of the first instance of such a mutation, and this is indeed the first time I've encountered the word "drug" being used this way. In everything I've heretofore read, the word was used to name the product or the active ingredient; one could have as many of one item as one liked, but still have only the one drug. To take a simple example, ask your average smoker how many recreational drugs he has on his person; he's unlikely to count his cigarettes before giving an answer.
So is this just a simple case of one journo taking liberties and/or the piss? I don't know. I do know one thing, though; I don't like it. Yes, this could merely be because it's new and different, but I like to think that there's more to it than that. The intellectual rationale for decrying the new meaning, though, I leave as an exercise for the reader.
By the way, this article is not part of the forthcoming 8 000-part series called "Things that illustrate why the Irish Times has no clue about how to use the web".