There’s a nice bit in Stephen King’s writing book where he says that if in doubt you should use the verb ‘to say’. Not declaim, not exclaim, not interject, not ejaculate. Say. Admittedly it’s hard to take vocab lessons from a man who has no qualms using the word ‘seed’ (give me ‘cum’ or ‘semen’ any day), but he’s definitely onto something. Here are three words that once peppered my personal lexicon but whose use I’ve since learned to temper.
I was walking across Kings, towards the bridge and then on to the English Faculty with Zack. We were in our third year. We were talking about dissertations; mine was still in a bit of a state, but Zack had some really interesting ideas about systems of law and King Lear (for context, he ended up getting one of the highest Tripos scores in our year, and he’s now – in the real world – a highflying barrister). I nodded enthusiastically at what Zack was saying, and said sincerely, ‘Oh that’s really cute!’.
Zack looked slightly aghast. I had meant cute as a high compliment, not an arch one. I had meant to say ‘Oh, that’s great! What a unique spin, what a delight that would be to read if it were done well. If I were a marker, I’d be putting double ticks all over the margin.’ But I learnt that day to be wary of how I use the word ‘cute’.
Resolution: try to carry off the more American, but in other ways similar, ‘neat’. Or just say ‘That’s good’.
This one surprised me. During summer I was working on something with a partner, and a team we weren’t familiar with. Coming out of one review, one of the CDs turned to the other and they started cracking up about the word ‘interesting’.
‘What’s wrong with interesting?’, I asked, less rhetorically than those around me inferred. Well – to answer my own question – if the person saying it isn’t, if what they’re saying isn’t, and – in fact – the only thing distinctive is the way they say the word… Well, if you take that and repeat it over a period of months on a three-day cycle, I can see how the word ‘interesting’ could get tarnished. I’m still going to use it, I just thought it remarkable that a perfectly innocuous (in a good way) word had been tarnished.
Resolution: resist ‘interesting’ and prefer ‘fascinating’. It will be far more obvious if you’re being delusional or taking the piss. And the compliment will be all the greater for employing the greater stakes. Or just say, ‘Oh, that’s good.’
I’m still on the fence with this one. I love it when it’s meant in a businesslike writerly way. Ben Blacker uses it a lot. But ‘fun’ is a functional descriptor in a writers room. At other times it can come off dismissive. In a recent Nerdist podcast, Nick Offerman’s talking about an incident early on in his courtship of Megan Mullally and, yeah, let’s just say ‘fun’ can be loaded…
Resolution: fuck it, stick with fun. Life's too short, but remember to use it meanly from time to time.