What does “anodyne” mean? It’s really not very exciting.

Bland. Dull. Boring. Insipid.

Those are some of the synonyms listed in one dictionary for “anodyne.”

Are you familiar with that word: anodyne? It’s certainly been getting a lot more use lately. Why is that? The word has been around for a long time (since the first half of the 16th century, as both a noun and an adjective, according to the OED), with the primary meaning of ‘something that soothes pain’ (either physical or psychological). It was always
uncommon, but use steadily dropped across the 20th century (as determined using Google Ngrams).

Anodyne seems to have taken on a slightly different meaning in modern use, more along the lines of “harmless.” Collins Dictionary supplied the synonyms listed above, and in 2007 the OED included an additional draft definition, which is worth giving here in full: “Unlikely to provoke a strong response; innocuous, inoffensive; vapid, bland.” They date the first use of this sense to 1933 (but skip more than 40 years for the next example, which might be meaningful but could signify absolutely nothing).

Anodyne recently seems to have gone from being one of those words you could—quite literally—go a couple of years without encountering to one that you can hardly avoid on a weekly basis. Over the past few months, I’ve heard it used in speech almost regularly and have come across at least one print use (without looking for it). In a sure sign that something is viral (I’ve been infected!), I caught myself using the word a couple of weeks ago. While anodyne is, of course, a perfectly good word, I can’t remember ever having a pressing need to use it. But I’d caught the bug. (In my defense, I used it correctly and the context was appropriate.)

This kind of uptick in popularity does seem to spread like an infection, affecting more and more victims over a greater and greater area. Fortunately, when this sort of outbreak happens with language, it rarely causes any harm. Whether the fever runs it course, or we collectively develop immunity, or the epidemic continues to rage, no one is really going to
suffer.

Every once in awhile a word like this comes along and the source of the contagion (to stick with the infection idea) is clear: it’s the media.* We can’t blame all such outbreaks on the media, but the sudden popularity of an unusual word is often the result of journalists, commentators, columnists, or others with a broadcast forum, who hear an unusual word, decide that it has some cachet in the moment, and then repeat it. Before you know it, it seems like every talking head is dropping that word into their own speech or writing. You know this is true: I’ve noticed similar word trends in the past and you probably have, too. For instance, a few years ago every financial journalist and commentator under the sun seemed to be using the word “tranche.” In very little time, all sorts of non-financial speakers were also using it (often incorrectly). “Curate” (frequently used without regard to accuracy) is also a word that’s reached infectious levels over the past few years. Another that I’ve got my eye on is “weaponize” (which might be overused, but seems to usually be used correctly—as long as you view it as a metaphor rather than literally). Tranche has largely faded back into obscurity, but curate seems likely to retain its new prominence; if I had to place bets on the others mentioned here, I’d guess that weaponize will stick around but that anodyne will recede again before long.

I say that about anodyne in part because the meaning doesn’t seem to be agreed upon by those who use it. Take a look, for example, at the four sample sentences given on that Collins page linked above (about halfway down the page). They lack context, but I challenge you to nail down an unambiguous meaning in any of those cases. This murkiness can’t be explained by the fact that Collins selects examples using an algorithm, with no editorial review: those examples were pulled from literate publications (three from the Sunday Times) and show how the word is actually used in the wild. (Merriam-Webster has more solid—and more up-to-date—examples.)

When a post on this site focuses on contemporary usage of a word, I often give a little advice on how or when or why to use it. That advice is heavily opinionated, but based on careful observation and personal impressions. For anodyne, I see no good reason to say “don’t use it.” Go ahead: it’s a good addition to any English speaker’s vocabulary and it has
the potential to liven up your speech and, especially, your writing. However, I suggest using it judiciously. It’s not a word you want to use too often, and it’s definitely going to work better in some situations (political writing, for example) and with some audiences (readers who are familiar with current events and debates) than others. I would also suggest that context is important, since the word today has two related but not identical meanings. Make sure when you roll this one out that it’s clear when you mean “easing pain” and just as clear when you mean “dull.”

= = = = =

* I have used the convenient shorthand concept of “the media” in this post to save space. But it’s not an idea I’m very comfortable with. The way this concept is used in contemporary America is extremely sloppy. It’s frequently political, often inflammatory, and more often than not incorrect. I hope you’ll forgive my leaning on the term in this case.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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