No Pain, No Gain

I. In this post I want to look at the words “analgesic”, “anaesthetic”, and “anodyne”, all derived from ancient Greek and all having to do with pain or the lack of pain. I begin with the word “analgesic”, which is a general term for pain killers which don’t induce loss of consciousness; many analgesics can be bought over the counter. The word “analgesic” is formed from the Greek prefix “an-”, which is a negative (related to the negative prefix “a-” as in “amoral” or “amorphous”), and the Greek root “alg-”, which is found in the Greek word “algos” (ἀλγός in Greek letters), which means “pain”. The English word “analgesic” first appears in 1848, and the word “analgesia” first appears in 1706. There are several English words with the Greek root “alg-”: “myalgia” is muscle pain, with the Greek root “mus”, which means “muscle” (or “mouse”); “otalgia” is ear pain, from the Greek root “ot-”, which also appears in “otitis”, an infection in the ear; “neuralgia” is pain corresponding to the distribution of a nerve, from the Greek root “neuron”, which means “nerve” (originally “bowstring”). An interesting “alg-” word is “nostalgia”; this is made of the “alg-” root and the Greek word “nostos”, which means “a return home”. The returns of the Greek soldiers from the Trojan War were called the “nostoi” or the “returns”; the most famous is the nostos of Odysseus. When the word “nostalgia” first appeared in English, in 1726, it meant “acute homesickness” as a medical condition; the meaning “wistful longing for the past” appears first around 1920, but I think it’s the dominant meaning now. So “analgesic”, “neuralgia”, and “nostalgia” all come from the same root.

II. The word “anaesthetic” is a technical term in medicine but it’s widely understood, since most of us at some time or another have an operation or a procedure which requires an anaesthetic. An anaesthetic is a drug that produces anaesthesia, or a lack of feeling or perception, used for for the prevention of pain in surgery. General anaesthetics produce loss of consciousness, and local anaesthetics produce a lack of feeling in some part of the body. The doctor who specializes in producing and managing anaesthesia is called an anaesthesiologist, and the science of producing and managing anaesthesia is anaesthesiology. These words are all fairly recent additions to English. Anaesthesia in the general meaning “lack of perception” is dated to 1721 and in the meaning “procedure for prevention of pain” is dated to 1846; “anaesthesiology” is dated to 1908; and “anaesthesiologist” is dated to 1943.

The root of all these words, “aesth-”, comes from the Greek verb “aisthanomai” (αἰσθάνομαι in Greek letters), which means “to perceive”, especially “to perceive with the senses”. (The Greek letters “ai” are regularly transcribed “ae” in Latin and English derivatives, and sometimes the “ae” combination is reduced to just “e”, so both “anaesthetic” and “anesthetic” are correct.) There are several other Greek words related to this root, including “aisthêma”, meaning “a thing that is perceived”, “aisthesis” meaning “perception by the senses”, “aisthêtês” meaning “one who perceives”, and a few others. When English needed terms for the lack of perception of pain and the procedures used to induce this lack of perception and the person who induces it, the root “aesth” was combined with the negative prefix “an-” to produce “anaesthesia” and the rest of this family.

The root “aesth-” or “esth-” without the negative prefix was borrowed (in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries) to mean “perception”; so, according to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, the meaning of the adjective aesthetic as “received by the senses” is dated to 1788 and the meaning of the noun aesthetics as “the science of the conditions of sense perception” is dated to 1803. This Dictionary also notes that the word aesthetic was “misapplied in German by Baumgarten to ‘criticism of taste’, and so used by English since 1830”. This misapplication has now become a standard meaning. The meaning “of or pertaining to the appreciation of the beautiful” dates to 1831 and “the philosophy of taste or the perception of the beautiful” dates to 1833. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, published in 1998, defines aesthete (not listed in the Shorter Oxford) as “a person who has or professes to have a special appreciation of beauty”; the definitions for aesthetic all have to do with beauty rather than with sense perception, such as “the philosophy of the beautiful, especially in art”. The word aesthetician is defined as “a person versed in or devoted to aesthetics” and also “a beautician”.

These conceptions of “aesthetic” derive from the idea that beauty is founded in the senses and perception through the senses. I’m no expert in philosophic aesthetics, but I gather that the concept of the “aesthetic” originally privileged music and painting and sculpture, all of which are certainly perceived by the senses, rather than literature. The beauty of a novel, for instance, can only with some stretching be thought of as sensory. In a further stretch of the term we can even call a mathematical proof “beautiful”, though that kind of beauty is far removed from the senses.

III. The word “anodyne” is a noun and an adjective derived from the negative prefix “an-” and the ancient Greek word “odune” (ὀδὐνη in Greek letters), which means both physical pain and mental distress; the Greek “anôdunos” (with a long “o” in the root) means “free from pain”. In English the adjective is more common than the noun. In English it dates back to 1540, but my impression is that it’s not a very common modern English word, not nearly as common as “analgesic” or “anaesthetic”. Most often it means “mentally soothing” or “inoffensive”; the idea is not so much that it alleviates pain, but rather that it doesn’t cause any pain in the first place. According to the Oxford Dictionary the noun can mean a painkilling medication, but I’ve never heard or seen it used that way. Some years ago the Toronto Transit Commission decided to post little poems in the buses and streetcars, and I heard someone comment that the TTC would post only the most anodyne poetry. I’ve also heard New Age music described as anodyne. It’s a good word, and I recommend it.

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