Brother, Can You ‘Anodyne’?


Sometimes a word is just ready for its close-up. My friend Jim Ericson commented to me that this is now the case with anodyne, and he was right. The Google News database charts 102 uses of it in the past 30 days, including six posted on June 2 alone:

  • A New York Times article called “How to Raise a Feminist Son” was ” … promptly excoriated by right-wing trolls, none of whom seemed to have actually read the article, which is filled with such anodyne nuggets as ‘let him be himself’ and ‘teach him to take care of others,’ wisdom that would be just as likely to appear on an episode of Caillou as a Marxist feminist zine.”–Romper
  • “A conservative state lawmaker in Kansas, Rep. John Whitmer, R, is under fire for tweeting a joke that — in context — is completely anodyne.”–Conservative Review
  • The singer Halsey has ascended “from the depths of the blogosphere to the top of the Billboard charts on the backs of two catchy, if anodyne, tracks.”–City Pages (Minneapolis)
  • “Now, if you’ve ever read the John Podesta emails, they are anodyne to boredom. They were run of the mill emails, especially run of the mill for a campaign.”–Hillary Clinton, quoted in MintPress News
  • “… a man so unfeasibly sane, patient and anodyne that Iris, the acerbic mother of Julia’s dead husband, wants to ‘smack him.’”–The New York Times, on a character in a new novel
  • Exxon “released a rather anodyne report arguing that it’ll probably be OK even if the world meets its ambitions on emissions reductions.”–BloombergQuint.

Even if you’re not familiar with the word, you can tell by context clues that its meaning is more or less the definition given by the online Oxford Dictionaries: “Not likely to provoke dissent or offense; inoffensive, often deliberately so.” It’s always struck me as a strange-sounding adjective (can anyone name another adj. that ends with -dyne?), and in fact it has a much longer history — dating to 1543, according to the Oxford English Dictionary — as a noun, specifically a drug used to alleviate pain. (“The daily Anodyne, and nightly Draught.”–Alexander Pope, “To a Lady (Of the Characters of Women).”) The current adjectival use, according to the OED, dates to 1933, when The Times of London wrote, “The vigour of the censorship prevents all but the most anodyne comment.” Why anodyne became an adjective and analgesic didn’t is anybody’s guess.

As the quote above and the examples from GoogleNews suggest, anodyne has two main connotations: a negative one meaning bland to the point of vapidity (often seen in arts criticism) and a rhetorical one, seen in the Whitmer and Clinton instances, used to argue that supposedly controversial or offensive utterances were in fact not.

Google Ngram viewer, charting the history of words in English-language books, reveals that use of anodyne roughly doubled from the 1960s to 2000 (the last year for which the tool provides reliable results).

Screen Shot 2017-06-06 at 9.13.14 AM

My sense that anodyne has sharply increased since 2000 is confirmed by a look at the archives of The New York Times, where it had one spike in the 2000s and is experiencing a big boom this decade.

Screen Shot 2017-06-06 at 9.04.02 AM

At this point anodyne is expanding into commerce, in a shoe company (see the photo at the top) and a coffee roaster.


Wherefore the anodyne boom? It’s hard to say, other than to point out that it’s been led by journalists, critics, academics, and politicians, who are always on the lookout for ways to suggest they’re saying something new and fresh (while in fact they’re not), and who characteristically have no qualms about jumping on the bandwagon of vogue words.

If that answer seems too anodyne, I apologize.


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