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When I recently read an article about “the movies of 2020 that gave us solace,” I asked: How can a movie give me solace? Solace is giving comfort to people in need of it.

It turns out that my reasoning was faulty, because for roughly 700 years solace has had two different meanings. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition of the noun solace is “Comfort, consolation; alleviation of sorrow, distress, or discomfort” and also “that which gives comfort.” The OED quotes Thomas à Kempis, who says in “The Imitation of Christ”: “God alone . . . is the solace of many souls.”

The second meaning: “Pleasure, enjoyment, delight; entertainment, recreation, amusement.” This meaning, which the OED says has been obsolete for 300 years, also goes back to the Middle Ages.

William Langland

says in “

Piers Plowman

” (1377): “God in his goodness . . . set him in solace and in sovereign mirth.” In the prologue to “The Canterbury Tales,” the narrator says he wants the pilgrims to tell tales “of best sentence and most solas,” by which he means they should be entertaining.

It seems odd to think of solace as either an attempt to comfort someone, which is a serious undertaking, or an attempt to amuse someone by telling a good story. Maybe the first meaning drove out the second meaning because the two meanings seem incompatible. But are they?

Why not think of giving solace as both comforting a person and telling him an amusing story? Merriam-Webster doesn’t think the notion of solace as amusement is obsolete. Its second definition of the verb is: “to make cheerful, amuse.” It quotes

Wilkie Collins’s

narrator in “The Moonstone”: “In this deplorable state . . . I solaced myself with the most composing pipe of tobacco I ever remember to have smoked in my life.”

To my mind, solace is mostly about your relationship to another person: You give solace. Think of those World War II movies in which someone hands a dying soldier a cigarette. He isn’t attempting to feel the soldier’s pain or prevent him from dying. He is giving solace by making the soldier comfortable during the final minutes of his life.

One gives solace not only to the dying. The two times I’ve stayed in the hospital, nurses and doctors gave me solace by bantering with me.

“All you need is love,”

John Lennon

said, but solace is different from love. It is hard to love more than a few people, but it shouldn’t be hard to give solace to perfect strangers. Yet many people avoid giving solace to friends or family members who are terminally ill because they fear they won’t know what to say or fear it would be inappropriate to tell an amusing story.

The main barrier to solace now, of course, is the isolation that Covid-19 requires. It is difficult to give solace online. A friend died in a hospital from Covid. His wife was distraught not so much because he died—he was in his mid-80s and had been in poor health for several years—but because she couldn’t give him solace.

Mr. Miller is the author of “Walking New York: Reflections of American Writers from

Walt Whitman


Teju Cole.

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Appeared in the January 27, 2021, print edition.

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