Hoping for an ‘Anodyne’ End to a Tough Year

“It’s a safe bet that a sizable number of Republican senators and representatives won’t regard the Biden administration as legitimate,” writes Harold Meyerson in the American Prospect. “That doesn’t augur well for Republican receptivity to anything Biden proposes, no matter how bland and anodyne.”

Now, don’t worry. This isn’t a column about politics. It’s a column about words. Specifically, “anodyne.” Because all of a sudden, the once-moribund word is everywhere; and the Grammar Curmudgeon that slumbers within me is awake ... and worried.

A recent piece in The Ringer about Martin Scorsese’s 1995 film “Casino” finds in the movie “an allegory in there about an increasingly centralized, anodyne, and coldly profitous movie industry.” A report from the Council on Foreign Relations concluded that October’s elections in Tanzania were so were so badly run that “the entire exercise lacked credibility, making the anodyne statements of the Southern African Development Community nothing short of embarrassing.” An opinion piece in the Washington Post criticized Senator Josh Hawley for trying to create a scandal out of “an anodyne internal Facebook project management tool.”

Each of these uses takes the word to be a synonym for “inoffensive.” But we already have a perfectly good word for inoffensive: inoffensive. Although “anodyne” was far more common in the 19th century than it is now, the word has had an upsurge lately, doubling in frequency since the mid-1990s. Unfortunately, the word is also losing a rich and subtle original meaning we would do well to preserve — especially at this moment when the president-elect confronts the challenges of unifying a fractured country while pushing policies that will please his progressive base.

“Anodyne” comes from a Greek root meaning “painless,” and was originally most popular as a noun, referring to something that made the pain go away. Thus 19th-century medical texts are full of references to “anodyne doses” of various herbs and chemicals. An 1878 volume distinguishes an “anodyne,” which alleviates or soothes pain, from an “anesthetic,” which makes the patient insensitive to it.

This idea was carried over into an adjectival form that continued to dominate usage well into the 20th century. For example, in 1935, the Guardian newspaper noted with some relief that after the leader of the Croix de Feu made remarks suggesting that the nationalist group might favor a coup d'état to overthrow the government of France, he gave a milder interview that constituted “an anodyne to his speech.” In 1953, after Secretary of State John Foster Dulles made what sounded like veiled threats against NATO members who were dissenting from a unified front, the Miami Herald noted with approval that Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson had offered softer comments “as an anodyne to the ruffled feeling” Dulles had caused.

When did the shift in usage from “soothing” to “inoffensive” take place? I can’t say for certain. As late as 1965, gossip columnist Lloyd Shearer could still describe the London dating scene as the “anodyne for loneliness,” but by the time Ronald Reagan was president, the new usage had become quotidian. Thus in 1981, the syndicated columnist Joe Kraft criticized Western foreign ministers for an “anodyne statement” on the Middle East — and lest his meaning be misunderstood, he also disdained the joint communiqué as “totally bland.”

So what? Words change their meanings constantly. Here, however, the evolution is also an extinction. By our increasing embrace of anodyne as a synonym for inoffensive, we are rapidly losing a word that, unlike “inoffensive,” has few useful equivalents.

Most American reference books have already surrendered before the onslaught. But all is not lost. Manning the ramparts still is the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED’s two definitions of anodyne as a noun adopt the traditional usage: “A medicine or drug which alleviates pain” or “Anything that soothes wounded or excited feelings.” As to today’s battle over adjectival use, the editors again offer two definitions, neither of them conveying inoffensiveness: “having the power of assuaging pain” and “soothing to the mind or feelings.”

Exactly right. The adjective form should properly be related to the noun form. Thus a criticism of a candidate’s speech as anodyne should connote not the presentation’s relative inoffensiveness but its design to soothe the body politic, settling upon the audience like a balm, making us feel better.

The distinction is nicely illustrated by Reinhold Solger’s pseudonymous 1860 satirical play, “The Hon. Anodyne Humdrum.” The title character is a forgotten American politician who yearns to be president, a committed abolitionist who during the debate over slavery is constantly crying, “The Union must be preserved!” (which is also the play’s subtitle). His slogan is hardly inoffensive; often its employment leads to heated arguments. At the same time, Humdrum’s tag line is designed to soothe both sides in the conflict with the implicit assurance that a middle ground might be found. (Humdrum, the historians tell us, is based on Abraham Lincoln.)

That’s the traditional usage, and for some of us, still the proper one. True, even the OED might be wobbling at the knee, for its entry is not entirely anodyne, concluding as it does with a proposed addition: “Unlikely to provoke a strong response; innocuous, inoffensive; vapid, bland.” I am pleased to say that the proposal has been hanging around since 2007 and has not been enacted; hopably, matters will so remain.

So let’s consider liberating “anodyne” from its current inoffensive prison and restoring the traditional usage. And for those who at this fraught political moment want a word that expresses their contempt for the innocuous, might I suggest "innoxious" — an all-but-lost word that literally means giving no offense, but also carries the smallest sting of venom.

And if I wish for you, my loyal readers, a happy Thanksgiving and an anodyne holiday season, I trust you will accept that I am not hoping that you will find the end of this strange, difficult year inoffensive; rather, I am wishing that in the days and weeks to come, all that has made this year so painful for so many will be assuaged.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.