It’s not just because I’m a writer.
When a person encounters something cool, delicious, sexy, exasperating, infuriating, out of the ordinary, or otherwise beyond the boundaries of typical qualitative measurements, it’s natural to want to describe that thing to someone else. As social media has made exceedingly clear, people want to share. Whether you do that sharing on Twitter or Snapchat, email or with old fashioned pen and paper, I’d like to offer a point for consideration. Use words that will genuinely and accurately convey what you mean to convey. Please: find something besides “incredible”.
The word has lost its potency due to overuse. I recognize it’s no longer a term that means “not credible”. That etymology serves as a referential point of genesis as much as humans own debts to hairier apes. Where it comes from is no longer what it is. But where it comes from nonetheless informs how we might regard its future deployment. If, when you attended a recent anniversary party, and the off-color comments from one of the host’s parents made you cringe, were they, indeed, “incredible”? It’s inevitable you’ll want to tell your friends about what you heard at the party. Skip the overused convention and plunge directly into your story.
You’re not off the school bus yet; I’ll get to why this matters in a moment.
Say you take this advice, skip this often meaningless, but commonly favorite descriptive word in lieu of something more communicative. You might begin your new first sentence like this: “So, we had just poured wine for a toast and her father suddenly declared…” Catch the problem? It’s the word, “So” starting the sentence as if it were about to conclude the summary of an abstruse philosophical position. It’s as if the culture has become super sensitized to the perils of misapplied declarations and we have collectively agreed to an artificial hook for connecting us to a moment that didn’t just happen. That starter word “So” cues people that we’re softening our own clear articulations, cushioning the story we’re about to state.
Ronald Reagan famously started political thoughts with the word, “Well…” Parodied a million times, that verbal tic has passed into modern argot as a grammatically correct way to frame a new thoughts that might meet disagreement. But as George Orwell perfectly described, language is the backbone of politics, and Reagan didn’t start sentences with “Well” unless he needed to subtly soften the impact. Considering the hypersensitivities of modern political ears, his “Well” came as a constant buffer to the more intimately held feelings from the Communicator in Chief.
That’s why the starter word “So” is so problematical. By artificially connecting us to a continuity of conversation that doesn’t actually exist (because you haven’t started telling your story yet!), we are insulated ever-so-slightly from hearing the complete clarity of what you really think about the thing you’re about to relate. The more we dilute clear communications, the more we dilute the ability to generate and share clear ideas. We promote doublespeak, citing Orwell again, and we do it either by being unaware of our actions, unaware of our genuine feelings, or unconsciously edgy that we’ll offend.
Words like “amazing” have lost their potency. I suspect you are not actually “amazed” when you see a great catch in a football game, even if you are impressed.
How about “awesome”? When your administrative assistant hands you a completed assignment, alphabetized, organized, and properly uploaded to the company’s server for distribution, is it really “awesome”, or is your initial reaction worthy of a clearer expression of thanks or appreciation? Are you really full of awe that your assistant actually did his or her job? Are you genuinely stunned that documents beginning with the letter “A” come alphabetically before the letter “B”? What’s “awesome” is certainly not when your kids put away their clean, folded clothes (although it may certainly be out of the ordinary). What’s “awesome” is something that fills you with a feeling that extends beyond your individual humanity. What’s “awesome” is something substantial you cannot create on your own. What’s “awesome” is something that fills you with awe.
Language matters. I’m not suggesting that these words or grammatical constructions should be removed from the language, but I am suggesting that like many things in life, they ought to appear at the proper time and place. Just like economics teaches us, endless availability reduces value.
Say what you mean in words and pictures and actions. That does not have to ever get in the way of being complementary or gracious or civil. In fact, the new clarity that comes from more precise deployments of these superlatives enhances our ability to genuinely compliment or congratulate, cajole or corral. By finding more accurate replacements for impotent, overused images, we enhance our ability to understand what each other means. Now more than ever, in a time of intense and growing divisions among communities, classes, cultures, and countries, it seems that clear communications should be regarded as vital.
Nonetheless, many simply don’t see the point, which is one reason why there’s so much misunderstanding these days.
Kind of incredible, isn’t it?