Words of Faint Praise

SmileToday’s topic is not very academic, but is worth discussing in relation to the American dialect(s). I’ve lived as an American my whole life, and something I find endlessly fascinating about our speech are ‘faint praise words.’ These are non-committal congratulations and compliments that, when you think about it, don’t much compliment or congratulate anything. Words such as:

1.) Cool. This is still the reigning king of such pleasantries. Ostensibly an old jazz term, ‘cool’ once meant something hip or trendy. (And still does, of course). However, it’s become a half-hearted platitude in all kinds of contexts. ‘I’m going to an antiques fair this weekend’ might prompt a ‘That sounds really cool.’ I doubt the respondent in this interchange actually thinks antiquing is hip.

‘Cool,’ I would surmise, originally derived from a sense of laid-back joie de vivre. We still use the word in this way, for example when we tell an angry person to ‘keep their cool,’ meaning to ‘cool’ one’s passions. Which is why the word is somewhat strange in the context of praise or enthusiasm. It suggests something agreeable, not exciting. Which is perhaps Americans why adapted …

2.) Awesome. This word doesn’t much change from its dictionary meaning, keeping its definition of something awe-inspiring. However, the ubiquity of the word in contemporary American English robs it of much of its gusto. We say ‘This pasta is awesome,’ ‘My apartment is awesome,’ or ‘Your job in insurance adjustment sounds awesome.’ Are any of these things mind-blowingly impressive? Not necessarily. In essence, this is the inverse of ‘cool;’ In the case of ‘awesome,’ we take a word conveying breathtaking excitement and make it surprisingly banal.

One of the unfortunate results of this reappropriation of ‘awesome’ is that when one requires use of the word in its traditional sense it is easily misinterpreted. A classical music critic might write of Faure’s ‘awesome Requiem,’ and while the word makes sense in this context, it can be interpreted as alarmingly off-the-cuff by contemporary readers. Such is language evolution.

3.) Neat. I can think of few words laced with as much withering neutrality as ‘neat.’ When we describe an experience as ‘neat,’ as in ‘We had a really neat time at the zoo,’ we are suggesting something that is quite literally clean, ordered and convenient. There is nothing dangerous or exciting about something that is ‘neat.’ Rather, it’s something pleasant, non-threatening, and uncomplicated. And of course, the word’s more human-applicable cousin is …

4.) Nice. On occasion, I’ve heard both the terms ‘Seattle nice’ and ‘Minnesota nice’ refer to their respective localities. Neither equate to outgoing, gregarious demeanors. Rather, we refer to Minnesota and Seattle, two of America’s more Scandinavian-influenced cultures, as having a mixture of surface friendliness and cold weather reserve.

‘Nice’ is decidedly unsexy, which is why it’s something we Americans are very ambivalent about being called. ‘Girls don’t like nice guys’ is a common (and decidedly misogynistic) refrain, which exemplefies our strange attitudes about niceness. We all want to be nice, but don’t necessarily want what comes with it. And so, again, we use ‘nice’ to denote something we feel very neutrally about.

So what’s with all these words? Pragmatically speaking, they seem to serve the purpose of withholding judgement in as pleasant a way as possible. That’s not to say I have any problem with you going to the zoo, just that I am not particularly
interested in the fact that you are going to the zoo, and so interject with a meaningless, ‘Going to the zoo sounds awesome.’

I don’t mean to suggest this kind of thing only exists in America. Far from it. I’m fairly certain all the above pleasantries have made their way into the British Isles and elsewhere.

But I am reminded of all this when I hear a common British observation: that we Americans are ‘direct’ in our language. In fact, our tendency to use the polite words above suggests we may be indirect in a rather different way. Rather than buffeting our statements with a lot of ‘rather’s and ‘quite’s, we Americans seem to codify specific words so they are understood by all parties to be inexpressive of actual emotion.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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20 Responses to Words of Faint Praise

  1. DL says:

    At times, I still hear “cool” and “awesome” used for entirely positive things. It’s all down to context and tone.

    However, there’s a distinctly neutral use of “cool” that I hear among young American men, especially among southerners and AAVE speakers: “It’s cool” or “that’s cool” as a way of indicating that an error does not need to be remedied and/or as a response to an apology to indicate that the speaker has no hard feelings towards the target. It can, like most any of the other stock responses in this situation, also have a subtext of temporary irritation or carry outright sarcasm.

    • Charles Sullivan says:

      That’s kind of an old-ish usage. “That’s cool” meaning “fuggedaboutit.”

    • Sean Riley says:

      Another phrase which has the same meaning as that and is used by AAVE speakers where I live is “you’re straight” or “you straight”. I really like that phrase.

  2. Park SB says:

    “Which is perhaps Americans why adapted …”

    Did you mean “why Americans adapted”?

    • Charles Sullivan says:

      No, he meant it in the way that makes no sense (?????)

      • Park SB says:

        No, I don’t think you understand: he made a mistake and I was correcting him. The writers of most blogs I visit want you to correct their mistakes and will even thank you for doing so. Thanks for the Internet sarcasm though. It amused me greatly.

  3. Eugene says:

    Nice post.
    I mean it as a compliment, and since I have spent a lot of time in Minnesota, went to college there, and grew up nearby, I’d take “Minnesota nice” as a compliment – an accurate compliment in that it describes behavior that is pleasant and appropriate, not too stingy and not overblown.
    I’d have a similar take on “neat” as in “that’s a neat trick.” I’m saying I like it, and that it might be a useful technique.
    It would be interesting to do a survey – maybe on Survey Monkey – to see how people react to these terms. I’m guessing that “cool” is still pretty groovy and that awesome is quite positive even though the phenomenon in question no longer inspires awe.
    Now, when you’ve defended your doctoral dissertation, you’d like to hear your colleagues say it was fantastic or at least fascinating. You probably would be disappointed if they say it was nice or neat, so the aspect of faint praise is a possibility.
    Each of these terms is interesting in terms of semantic changes over time. Terms narrow, broaden, shift and tend to weaken over time. Nice started as silly/foolish, then timid, then fussy, then delicate, then precise, then agreeable.
    Neat began as clean/pure, then elegant, then very good (now just OK?).

  4. Sooryan FM says:

    Awesome and awful come from the same word, but one word kept the E while the other didn’t.

  5. gaelsano says:

    “Interesting” has long since ceased to mean anything of the sort. In about half of the cases I hear it, it’s practically a poor actor’s way of trying to veil discomfort or unhappiness (especially with gifts). The other half of the time it means “I don’t agree with what’s been said at all, but I don’t want to talk about it any more than we already have, so I’ll implicitly draw attention to its real or imagined uniqueness and leave it at that.”

    Another related phenomenon is kindly prefacing everything with “really” then retracting that sentiment (out of fear or because it was insincere) by also prefacing everything with “kind of”. “Wow, that was really kind of cool.”

    I think these words can change pretty fast. I remember “neat!” being a pretty genuine word on TV and in speech in the 1990s. I assume at one point that “fine” (Hey, son, how was school today? Fine.) meant something other than “there are no problems that concern you, now leave me alone and stop asking questions”.

  6. Darren says:

    If I hear anyone utter “oh yeah?” when i’m trying to tell them a story, I know they arent listening, or care…how?..because I do it too!!

  7. Tom says:

    I see “cool” (especially) also used as simply a placeholder that gets the speaker away from listening to someone to saying what he/she wants to say.

    I’ve seen the same phenomenon, amplified, with the word “so” (I’d love to see this examined further). Time after time lately, in radio or TV interviews, the interviewer will introduce the concept behind, say, an author’s book, and the author will begin answering with the word “so” (“So the first thing you need to understand about the financial crisis is…”) where “so” makes no sense: it’s not the “effect” of a “cause” articulated by the interviewer; it’s just a clumsy way of saying, “I’m talking now,” with an uncomfortable sense that the previous speaker was just wasting our time. (I hope this is coming across the way I intend. I don’t have a ready example, but it seems very pervasive—with Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert’s guests, for example.)

    • Beth says:

      Yup Tom, it’s all over the BBC here in Britain and it’s really annoying. I think you describe perfectly how using ‘so’ to start a sentence can denigrate the previous speaker and I also feel it’s a bit pretentious, as if what the new speaker is about to say encompasses really difficult concepts that others might not readily understand unless we are prompted that this is the important bit to listen to, with the use of ‘so’.

  8. Lane says:

    I took a look at the rise of “awesome” (and its offshoot “awful”) here,
    http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/ideas/robert-lane-greene/just-awesome

    It seems the dulling of once-powerful words is pretty inevitable. Terrible/terrific, fantastic, horrible, etc. Airplane food would not have been “terrible” three centuries ago (and not only because there were no airplanes).

  9. Meta says:

    How about the internet saying, “cool story, bro”? There, “cool” means something like gaelsano described with “interesting”: “What you said is not interesting or relevant enough to justify the long time that you took to talk about it. However, it would be rude of me to say so, and I would rather drop the subject altogether, so I will say something mildly positive that barely meets my obligations of politeness as a conversational partner.” But, of course, the “cool” in “cool story, bro” is supposed to be transparently false. “Cool story, bro” is unambiguously negative and a little rude. This makes it very well suited to the internet, where more rudeness is tolerated, but not so much to face-to-face conversations.

  10. Sooryan FM says:

    Appealing and appalling seem like a better pair. ;)

  11. Stuart says:

    Nice is one of my favourite pejoratives, for specific situations. Whenever pedantic prescriptivists get all prissy about words changing their meaning and insist on sticking to the “original” definition, I tell them to stop being so nice. I can’t think of a word that better illustrates the way words evolve, starting off as a pejorative, wending its way through several levels of compliment and then, through overuse being stripped of any meaning to the pint where it is once again a pejorative, albeit of a different kind from its origin.

  12. Larry S says:

    Like many things in language, this is complicated, because I’ve also heard “nice” used in a definitely positive sense in the last few years, especially by males around my age (22) and younger. An example would be if I made a good shot in golf (which would never happen), one of my friends might say, “Niiiiiiice!”

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