What does anodyne mean?

Word count: 354 words

Reading time: About 1.5 minutes

If you increase your vocabulary you’ll not only help your reading, you’ll also make your writing more precise. Here is my word of the week: anodyne.

I’m still reading Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres and I continue to find words that stump me. In fact, some of the negative reviews on Amazon complain about the book’s monumental vocabulary. As one reader put it: “a high syllable-per-word average is not a good measure of writing skill.” I agree, but I always welcome the chance to learn new words — or to cement the knowledge of words I should know already.

Anodyne falls into this latter camp. I probably confer with my dictionary at least once a year to determine the meaning of this word and yet, despite the frequent checking, I can’t seem to hold the definition in my brain. Perhaps this is because the sentences in which it appears seldom reveal the meaning. Take this one from Captain Corelli:

Why did Ribbentrope send him anodyne assurances that could not be believed?

So, I scurry to the dictionary and learn (again) that it means “not likely to provoke dissent or offense; uncontentious, often deliberately so.” But when I check the etymology, I learn a more reliable path for remembering the meaning.

The word can be traced to the 1540s, from the Latin anodynus, meaning painless. This in turn, comes from the Greek anodynos, meaning “free from pain. And this reminds me of the Greek word  analgesia meaning “painlessness, insensibility.” I’m not likely to forget what an analgesic is (e.g. Tylenol, Motrin, Advil) so if I can hang onto that, surely I can remember that anodyne means inoffensive?

Still, I’m left wondering why de Bernieres didn’t use the more transparent synonym benign?