A colleague, Dr. Ted Bunn in Physics, recently used our word to describe a “anodyne word” that lets a disturbing idea be described in a soothing manner. I knew the word but not its usage or history; Ted suggested a medical origin.
He’s correct. The OED Online lists several definitions, all about a procedure or medicine that eases pain, the oldest dating from the 16th Century. Only more recently has the word come to include anything that may avoid a strong response. It can mean something so inoffensive as to be bland, the cafeteria pudding of language.
Here’s a humorous example the OED provides from 1991 by Joanna Trollope, where “Celia and Elaine were having a carefully anodyne conversation about the church fête.” That is a conversation guaranteed to avoid an argument.
Anodynes are more than synonyms or euphemisms. They mask something, often with the worthy intention of maintaining harmony. Here’s an example I just invented, using anodyne expressions to cover up a really awful situation: “Management concluded to end our relationship with BigCo, our current vendor of bathroom supplies. That decision was made in the general interest of all our employees and the many visitors who use our hygienic facilities. The repeated difficulties with BigCo’s toilet tissue led to several quite vocal remarks to our staff about the lack of quality assurance at BigCo’s manufacturing plant.”
I let your imagination do the rest. The word “difficulties” is a perfect anodyne term. So is “hygienic facility” or, for that matter, “restroom” in place of the British-English “toilet.”
Business writing is full of anodynes. It can be dreadful, but sometimes such language proves very useful. Consider what you have to write on a sympathy card. Mostly, however, anodyne words get in the way of making a point clearly and succinctly. At worst, they become parody or lies: “We value your call.”
I actually do value your input! Please nominate a word or metaphor useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.
Tapioca Pudding courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.