Word of the Week! Anodyne

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.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Tapioca Pudding courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Consultant News: Tech Writing at Jefferson Lab

By Julia Siewert, Writing Consultant

Editor’s Note: From time to time we run “dispatches from the field” by current or former Consultants. Here Julia shows us the utility of what we do even in the most technical of settings.

Last summer I worked as a technical writing intern at Jefferson Lab. This job involved working with subject matter experts to edit, create, and format highly technical cryogenic resource and operations manuals. These were operations modeled after JLab’s CHL2 (Central Helium Liquefier), and were being modified (and, in some cases, created from scratch) for use at SLAC for their upcoming LCLS-II project.

I learned a LOT more than I thought I would as a writer, and went by the motto “if I can understand it, so can the engineer” while I was editing. I also got to work a bit with basic graphics and got to make keys for the process and instrumentation designs for LCLS-II. Both of these combined made a comprehensive guide to the machinery and operations of the cryogenics for this awesome project at temperatures around 2-4 Kelvin (which is about -271 to -269 degrees Celsius).

This was an awesome experience, and I’m proud to say I successfully created around 9-10 complete procedural documents that will be implemented in the commissioning process. I especially enjoyed combining my love for writing with my science background and working with some of the nation’s brightest in engineering and physics.

Image (The two sections of linear accelerator in the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility at Jefferson Lab) courtesy of Jefferson Lab at Flickr.

Consultant News: Legal Writing

I enjoy hearing about Writing Consultants who have helped to bring a piece of work to publication. So we all should tip our hats to Rosemarie Ferraro, who assisted Gerald Lebovits, as a judicial intern, with four articles in the New York State Bar Association Journal about legal writing:

Legal writing is one of the hardest transitions of all for first-year law students. Professor Lebovits gives a good deal of valuable advice here, my favorite being “use the passive voice only when you have good reason to use it.”

One exception I know personally involves police reporting. I long ago taught Criminal Justice writing to police officers at Indiana University. As I told them “the passive voice incriminates no one. ‘The car was stolen and, according to two witnesses, John Smith was reported nearby’ works far better than ‘John Smith stole that car!’ ”

If you know Rose, congratulate her. She has returned from study abroad and is working in our program now. If she plans to attend law school, I have no doubt that her careful eye for sentence-level details, as well as this publishing experience, would make her first year a success.

Other Writing Consultants, tell me about your work in professional writing and I will share it here with faculty.

Word of the Week! Amortize

The world of business provides few enough beautiful words, but this week’s is a favorite of mine, less for its mouthfeel and more for its utility. A person shows both their age and their financial sense when they can employ “amortize” and “amortization” well.

As its roots show, the word has something to do with death. That usage, The OED Online tells us, stretches back to the late Middle Ages, with a 14th Century example from Chaucer’s “The Parson’s Tale” provided. In 1656, T. Blount’s dictionary, Glossographia, notes “Amortize, to deaden, kill, or slay.”

That’s not what my tax accountant meant when he told me that we could amortize our equipment purchases over several years, if we wanted to write off our farming expenses. I imagine myself shooting holes in the 500 gallon cistern I use to collect rainwater for irrigation.

No, this sense of retiring a debt for equipment or liquidating something gradually appears, like modern business practices themselves, only in the 19th Century. All other morbidity clinging to the word and its nominalized form, “amortization,” have long vanished from living memory.

So consider this post a memento mori for all those other senses of “amortize,” here at the end of the academic year.

This blog will continue all summer, so nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Creative-Commons image provided courtesy of Pixabay.

Word of the Week! Practicable

Special thanks to Lee Chaharyn, of UR’s Collegiate Licensing & Special Projects. Lee picks a good word; I used it frequently when teaching business and professional writing at Indiana University. I’ve not done so recently, but the time has come to dust off this term. It contains several meanings that I’d never before encountered.

The OED Online provides a long history, one dating to the 16th Century, much like many of our prior words of the week.

In 1593, one might speak of “fiue (sic) hundred practicable cases” and except for the spelling of “five,” we would employ our word of the week in precisely the same manner. One thinks of practicable matters in terms of their being feasible. The OED also includes “effective,” “practical,” and a few other definitions.

If last week’s word slid off the tongue, this one decidedly does not. The strength of practicable arises when it appears in print.  Business writers often need synonyms, especially when these provide just the nuance for a sentence. Given the word’s somewhat circuitous etymology, “A borrowing from Latin; modelled (sic) on a French lexical item,” I would argue that by combining elements of “practical,” “practice,” and “able,” practicable counts as a portmanteau word capturing the sense of a thing that can be done or used without too much fuss.

Secondary meanings extend to routes that are the best to take when traveling, or to describe a prop in a play that can be used, as in this 2002 example from the OED about theater history, “A more finished version of the garden plan..can be seen in figure 2, for an unidentified production. The lazy line back becomes here a garden path stretching across what may be a practicable footbridge.”

That is not all; I never had heard of the noun form. In the specialized language of live theater, however, drapes that could be parted by actors are a practicable, but those painted on a wall are not. I hope some reader in that field will let us know if the term still has any currency.

Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

A 2011 Graduate on Writing in the Workplace

By Megan Reilly, WC 2011

Even though I graduated from the University of Richmond in 2011, I often reference my time at the Writing Center to colleagues and to the local New York City students that I now tutor in English and writing. In fact, the main reason why I was hired by my tutoring company in NYC was because of my work at UR!

Working at the Writing Center was a great way for me to build confidence in my own writing, develop a basis of knowledge to help all types of students, and learn how to interact with students of various backgrounds and give them constructive criticism. My work at the Writing Center benefits both my tutoring work and my work as a full-time employee at Penguin Group (USA). If you want to be in publishing it is important to have a passion to read and to write. The two go hand in hand, and I’d like to think that my ferocious reading of Nancy Drew books in middle school has made me a better writer today!

Whether it is writing persuasively in order to latch book bloggers onto a new Amy Einhorn classic, or simply writing e-mails to co-workers, being able to eloquently express yourself in writing is a skill that more and more companies are looking for in recent graduates. Being able to edit countless essays at UR (and both narrative and analytical essays at that) is an experience that will benefit me in any job I may have in the future. I had the opportunity to work with many talented writers and tutors at the Center, and I truly felt like I was continually learning how to become a better writer.