Soporific / Annihilate

To sleep, perchance to vaporize.

Dear Word Detective: Recently, I was re-watching an episode of one of my favorite TV shows, The West Wing, when I heard a particularly good line from the President (who is played by Martin Sheen). He is remarking to an assistant that he has a meeting with the Treasury Secretary, “… a man so soporific one shouldn’t operate heavy machinery in his presence. A meeting that would feel interminable at three minutes is likely to stretch into a soul-annihilating 50….” I’ve been in meetings like that as, I’m sure, have you. In any case, I think “soporific” is a great word, exceeded in greatness, perhaps, by “annihilate” which bears little resemblance to any other words I know how to spell. If I have to choose, I’d rather learn the history of “soporific” — but I hope I don’t have to choose! — Fernando.

The West Wing! Hey, did you hear they’re going to be bringing that series back in a remake starring Charlie Sheen? Jon Cryer is gonna play a Biden-esque doofus VP, and they’re relocating the White House to Vegas. This all sounds entirely too plausible, doesn’t it? I must admit that I never watched The West Wing when it was on because I have a deep and abiding … let’s call it an allergy … to Aaron Sorkin. I tried to watch his Newsroom on HBO a while back and just the memory of that ten minutes is making it impossible to finish this sentence in a family-friendly manner. But a lot of people I like love him, so there’s that.

“Soporific” is a great word, much better than merely “dull” or “boring.” The root of “soporific” is the Latin noun “sopor,” which means “sleep,” plus the suffix “fic,” which is a form of the verb “facere,” meaning “to make.” So “soporific” means literally “causing sleep.” English borrowed “soporific” from the French “soporifique” (everything sounds classier in French) back in the late 17th century, and used it initially to mean things (drugs, medicines, etc.) that literally put a person into a state of slumber (or at least caused extreme sleepiness). “Soporific” as a noun is still used to mean a class of drugs that promote sleep or drowsiness. (Interestingly, so is “hypnotic,” from the Greek “hypnos,” sleep.)

Given the natural aptitude some people have for boring the pants off other people, it’s not surprising that “soporific” was also almost immediately applied figuratively to people, topics of conversation, books, plays and other elements of culture that were deemed likely to either put people to sleep or to make them wish they were asleep (“Hibernian matrons thus of old, Their soporific stories told,” 1727). Less commonly, “soporific” is also used to mean literally “drowsy or sleepy” (“The soporific tendencies of … a portion of the congregation,” 1896).

It’s quite a leap from “soporific” to “annihilate,” but this column can turn on a dime, so fasten your seat belts. “Annihilate” means, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) so cheerfully explains, “To reduce to non-existence, blot out of existence.” Whoa. Can’t we talk about this? Anyway, “annihilate” (which I’m glad you can spell, because I have some weird mental block about the word) comes ultimately from the Latin verb “annihilare,” which meant “to reduce to nothing” and was formed by combining “ad” (to) with “nihil,” meaning “nothing.”

“Annihilate” has all sorts of modern uses both figurative and literal; for instance, it turns out that the scientific term for when a subatomic particle encounters its antimatter “antiparticle” is “annihilation.” And in theology, “annihilation” means “to destroy the soul as well as the body” (“God can no more be the Author of Evil, than he can Annihilate himself, and Cease to be,” Daniel Defoe, 1727), which would make Mr. Sorkin’s phrase “soul-annihilating” a teensy bit redundant. So there’s “annihilate” (and I’m still trying to spell it annihiliate”). Not cheery, granted, but every word has its uses, and when nothing but utter obliteration will do, “annihilate” is just the ticket.

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