tonics and bromides

As a kid, I thought tonic water was just a weird-tasting soda my grandparents liked to drink. I had no idea it was medicine. Originally, people drank tonic water to ward off malaria. The gin was optional—in theory.

Tonic water contains quinine, a bitter extract of cinchona tree bark that can be effective against the malaria parasite. Today’s mixer no longer contains an effective dose—we’ve left only a trace amount to balance the sweetness of a gin and tonic.

“Tonic,” meaning something medicinal that gives a feeling of vigor and well-being, is an older usage. Think miracle elixirs, snake oil. The word comes from the Greek tonikos, meaning “for stretching,” and ties to our use of the word to describe healthy muscle tone.

If you’ve ever read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged, you’ll know that one of Ayn Rand’s favorite words is “bromide.” A bromide is a compound containing bromine. In the 19th century, doctors used bromine salts like potassium bromide for their calming effect on patients. Later, a humorist coined Rand’s preferred usage: Bromides were boring people and the bland, boring things they said—trite platitudes, clichés. In other words, verbal sedatives.

Tonics and bromides. The things authors say to give readers a “feeling of vigor,”—just the feeling, mind you—and the things they say to reassure us without saying anything real at all. Half the damn internet today, tonics and bromides!

My own writing is littered with them. So is yours. They end up all over the page the minute you start typing, like glitter. The purpose of editing is to painstakingly remove them to the extent that your deadline and your word count allow.