Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Amazing Greats: Stalking the Super Superlative

My recent post on copywriting reminded me that one of the biggest challenges facing copywriters (especially those who specialize in marketing and promotion) is to come up with fresh, original ways to say that something is good. After all, how many times can I say a product is great, fantastic, or new-and-improved before readers start tuning me out?

I was in high school when I first realized the inadequacy of the word nice. The very common description "Jane Doe is nice" could mean anything or nothing, and generally meant only that Jane Doe exhibited no overtly objectionable qualities, at least in the opinion of the speaker. Faint praise at best. Nice told me next to nothing about Jane. What exactly made her nice? Was she friendly? Polite? Smart? Funny? Thoughtful? Kind to animals? Skilled at games? Without really being aware of it, I started a little personal boycott of nice, substituting more precise descriptions. I didn't always succeed--after all, nice is an overused word for a reason--but the attempt did boost my vocabulary a bit.

Recalling this former aversion to nice, I consulted my friend Webster to discover what the word actually means. Imagine my surprise to find that nice comes from a Middle English word meaning foolish, wanton, silly, or simple. Huh? Only further down the list do we find the more common modern take on nice: pleasing, agreeable, appropriate, fitting, well-bred, virtuous, respectable, polite, and kind. In my opinion, any of those terms goes a lot further in describing a person than nice does.

What is your favorite positive descriptor of choice? Are you fond of awesome? Did you know that awe comes from the Greek achos, meaning "pain," and is "an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, or wonder"? If you're using it to describe a hamburger, you might want to rethink your word choice.

Another adjective currently repeated ad nauseum is amazing (apparently most effective if you draw out the second syllable: ah-MAAAAAAY-zing!). Knowing that this word descends from the Middle English amasen, meaning bewilder, confuse, or perplex, "to show or cause astonishment," do you still want to tell your kid every day, "You're amazing!"? (You might, but you should at least understand what it is that you're saying!)

Of course we all know that language changes over time, and Middle English definitions don't necessarily apply to current usage. My point is to encourage you to be precise in your descriptions--to choose descriptive words carefully and not always fall back on the current well-worn favorite. Keep a list of appealing descriptions you run across in your reading, and refer to it if you get stuck. Think carefully about word choices and soon you'll be an awesome writer who gets amazing results! And what could be nicer than that?


Kathy Cooney Dobbs said...

Always a challenge for me to choose the perfect (underused) descriptive adjective.... but a challenge I'd like to overcome. I used to think about someone being nice as opposed to being mean, but after reading your post, hope no one ever again describes me as nice :)

Jennifer Rova said...

Your post reminds me of the past TV show "That's Incredible!" They said "incredible: dozens of times to the point of using so often that I have never used the word since. Instead of nice, I prefer "pleasing" or "pleasant." The adjective that grates on me is "pretty." It is rarely used to mean "attractive in a delicate way without being beautiful or handsome." EX: The test was pretty easy. I did pretty well choosing a car, eh? Nothing to do with physical attributes.

Mary Jane Honegger said...

The oh-so-blah adjective I abuse is "great". I work hard to eradicate it from my writing, but it seems to pop up again and again. Maybe I should start substituting a one-word exclamation my kids use: Sweeeeet! Other "great" suggestions: fabulous, dandy, rockin, stupendous, spectacular. One question, now does "not so nice" mean someone is agreeable and well-bred? If that's the case, goodbye from your not-so-nice friend.