Adjectives that should be banned
An Irishman’s Diary on why certain words are the enemy of meaning
François-Marie Arouet: ’Adjectives are frequently the greatest enemy of the substantive’
According to the writer Stephen King, “the road to hell is paved with adjectives”. Hemingway was similarly suspicious of the words. He learned early in life “to distrust adjectives as I would distrust certain people in certain situations”.
Mark Twain was probably fairer. “When you catch an adjective, kill it,” he began, before relenting. “No, I don’t mean utterly. But kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when close together. They give strength when wide apart.”
So, not wishing to appear fanatical, but in the generous spirit of Twain, here is a list of adjectives I believe should be on Death Row, awaiting the outcome of appeals for clemency.
Iconic: I’ve already said most of what needs saying about this now appallingly hackneyed word, which was banned from this space two years ago after I saw it used in a Sunday newspaper to describe a living Irish hairdresser. Suffice to add that, once a high-value adjective, it is now the verbal equivalent of the Zimbabwean dollar. Don’t try buying anything with it.
Significant: This is a great favourite of political reporters and it sounds very meaningful. In fact, it even means “meaningful”. The paradox is that, in most of its uses, it also means nothing. Eg: “The measure is expected to have significant benefits”. Yes, but what benefits? If you knew, you’d tell us.
Considerable: (see Significant).
Fulsome: Most people use this as a deluxe version of “full”, which is what it meant back in the Middle Ages. Then gradually it became an insult, to describe something unctuous or hypocritical. Now it seems to be returning to its earlier meaning. And, on the basis that if enough people make a mistake, the mistake becomes the rule, it’ll get there eventually. In the meantime, all sensible English users should avoid it.
Orwellian: This is not much overused any more. In fact its popularity peaked – funnily enough – around 1984. But I include it here because Orwell himself cautioned writers against “vagueness, obscurity, [and] the lure of decorative adjective”. Calling an adjective after him was always in bad taste.
Kafkaesque: (See Orwellian)
Passionate: This once exciting word was kidnapped some years ago by public relations consultants, and it hasn’t been the same since. These days, far from referring to your sex life or political convictions, it’s typically used to describe your level of commitment to a job. The latest example is a radio ad I heard this week for a company “passionate about kitchens”. Elsewhere, the term has become a euphemism for idiotic football managers, especially the kind who flirt with Italian fascism and celebrate goals by doing knee-slides in Armani suits.
Jejune: This is not a common adjective, I know. It’s just uniquely pretentious. About once a year, I read it somewhere and always have to check the dictionary. Then I see the definition and think: why didn’t they say that instead? I had to look it up again just now for the purposes of this column and already I’ve forgotten what it means.
Tucked: The verb still does a useful job on occasion. Unfortunately, as a verbal adjective, its past participle has fallen into disrepute. This is especially true in sport, where a football may be tucked “home” or “away” and end up in exactly the same place. Even more curious, however, is its use by estate agents. Properties are only ever said to be tucked “away”. Yet, paradoxically, by definition, they’re all home. It’s just too confusing.
Strongest-possible: You often hear people saying they want to object to something “in the strongest possible terms”. Then they never follow through on this promise. That’s because you have to Shakespeare or Abraham Lincoln to have any realistic hope of finding the strongest possible terms to say anything. You don’t get any points just for stating it as an ambition. So why expose the limitations of your vocabulary?
Full and Frank: Yes, like Hemingway, the Irishman’s Diarist has been forced to go through life with a first name that sounds like an adjective. But at least I wasn’t christened “Full and Frank”, the two-pronged cliche beloved of people who attend crisis meetings. Somehow, when I hear a politician describe an exchange as “full and frank”, I never expect him to be either when telling us about it.
But then, as a famous Frenchman once put it, “adjectives are frequently the greatest enemy of the substantive”. He was a Frank too, by the way: born François-Marie Arouet. That was before, practising what he preached, he dropped the double-barrelled qualifier, and its object, and became the drastically simplified “Voltaire”.