Psychedelics Hit the Big 60!

by Jessica on March 9, 2016

By Allene Symons

If you’ve ever sampled or wanted to sample psychedelics, then this flashback is for you. Sixty years ago, in March of 1956, the word psychedelic was coined during an intense exchange of letters between a famous author and a psychiatrist whose specialty was schizophrenia. I tell the full story in Aldous Huxley’s Hands: His Quest for Perception and the Origin and Return of Psychedelic Science.

The famous novelist was Aldous Huxley, best known for his dystopian novel Brave New World. His friend and verbal sparring partner was Canadian psychiatrist Humphry Osmond, who ran one of the world’s largest mental hospitals.

In a previous incident, Osmond had guided Huxley through a heaven-and-hellish experience after Huxley convinced the doctor to give him a little-known drug called mescaline. Derived from the active ingredient found in the peyote cactus, mescaline was known to mimic the reality-shattering mental disorder called psychosis.

Huxley ingested mescaline, and the result was a powerful and visionary adventure with elements of both mysticism and madness. Huxley wrote about his biochemical rite of passage in The Doors of Perception, a book that shook up his loyal readers and astonished literary critics.

That slim book influenced both Huxley and Osmond’s future endeavors in many ways. The two became advocates of research into the therapeutic, creative, and spiritual benefits of this drug, and not only mescaline but its chemical cousin LSD, the magic-mushroom derivative psilocybin, and other related substances as well.

The Doors of Perception led to numerous speaking engagements and article commissions for Huxley and Osmond, but it was a cumbersome mouthful to refer to this constellation of drugs by always listing their separate names. So on March 31 of 1956, in a letter to Osmond, Huxley complained: “About a name for these drugs – what a problem!

Humphry Osmond had expressed a similar view in a letter to Huxley a week earlier when he wrote: “The name should have a clear meaning, be reasonably easy to pronounce, and not be too much like some other name.” He suggested several new words formed from Latin roots, but the one he preferred was ‘psychodelics.’

At this point cultural history almost took a detour because Huxley misread the word. He thought it was spelled with a letter T as ‘psychodetics,’ suggesting mind dividing, which didn’t make sense to him. The misunderstanding was not a surprise, because Osmond’s handwriting was spiky and odd, and it didn’t help that Huxley had been partially blind since contracting an eye disease at age seventeen.

After objecting to Osmond’s proposed term, Huxley put forth one of his own – ‘phanerothyme,’ its Latin root meaning ‘soul,’ then introduced it in a ditty: “To make this trivial world sublime, take half a gramme of phanerothyme.”

In a volley of wordplay, Osmond tweaked the vowel by changing the O to an E and fired back: “To plumb the depths or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic.

<img class="alignright" src="https://i0 achat viagra vrai.wp.com/i38.photobucket.com/albums/e141/VromansBookstore/aldous-headshot_zpsh1pyrhos.jpg?resize=122%2C107″ alt=”” data-recalc-dims=”1″ />Huxley got it.

Before long this feisty word would attach itself to the music, art, fashion, and spirit of protest of the 1960s — the offspring of a debate, and misunderstanding, between a psychiatrist and a celebrated author sixty years ago this month.


 Allene Symons is the author of three books and a veteran journalist whose work has appeared in consumer and trade magazines. She served as a senior editor for Publishers Weekly in New York, and wrote articles for Details, the Los Angeles Times (book reviews and travel), and other publications. She also created the travel lit review column “Great Reads for the Restless” for msnbc.com.