Have you noticed the strange feature of the English language that most of our words that mean ‘really good’ imply disbelief or some other concept that we may not wish to imply?
List of words for ‘really good’ that imply disbelief:
- unbelievable, incredible, fabulous, fantastic.
For the first two we can easily see the disbelief. For the next two we need to dig a little into etymology. Fabulous relates to fables – things that did not happen. Fantastic relates to fantasy – things that we only imagine.
So let’s not say that somebody has done a fabulous job, since that may imply we don’t believe they really have done a good job. Perhaps it’s not as good as it seems, or maybe they are taking credit for somebody else’s work.
Better to just say they have done a really good job.
Other alternatives imply surprise:
- marvellous, wonderful, amazing, astonishing, stunning, gobsmacking
Surprise suggests less scepticism than does disbelief, but the scepticism is hinted nonetheless. Even if not scepticism, it could be taken to imply that the person usually does a less good job. Ewan, you got it right for once! Marvellous! You usually make such a hash of things.
Again, I’d stick to ‘Good job, Ewan!’
Other praise words serve as superlatives or comparisons:
- excellent, outstanding, exceptional, superb, superlative, remarkable, unparalleled, unsurpassed, first-class, first-rate
Even if these don’t imply that Ewan usually fails, they could imply that most of his friends do, ie Ewan has excelled relative to his classmates, if not relative to his usual low performance level. Comparisons between people seem unkind to me. To describe Ewan or his work as ‘outstanding’ hints to his sister Eithne that hers is not.
When one does excellently, one must, by definition, have excelled others, from which it follows that those others have achieved less than best practice. Let us call such unfortunates the excellees, contrasting them with Ewan who in this case we can call the exceller.
If we don’t identify, implicitly or explicitly, specific excellees (Hah! Losers!) we identify the human race in general as a bunch of excellees. With so many beople being excelled (surpassed, outperformed, beaten), perhaps they needn’t feel bad about it. But doesn’t it generate a pessimistic feeling about people and about life? The same concern applies to the disbelieving words. If I describe a donation somebody made to a humanitarian charity as ‘incredible’, am I taking a bleak view of human nature – saying that most humans are mean? Some might say that’s just being realistic, and we should not kid ourselves. Perhaps.
Some praise words just mean big:
- colossal, huge (colloquial)
No harm I suppose. But they only work for a small class of types of work. I wouldn’t say that somebody’s really good, intricate needlepoint work was colossal.
‘Terrific’ sounds nice. Until we look up the etymology and see that it comes from the latin word for terror and means ‘frightful’.
No. None of the above say what’s needed. That’s why, next time Ewan does a great job, I’m going to say ‘Ewan, that’s really splendid!’
‘Splendid’, and its posher fellow travellers ‘splendorous’ and ‘resplendent’, means ‘looks really nice’. The website etymonline.com says:
Splendid: 1620s, “marked by grandeur,” probably a shortening of earlier splendidious (early 15c.), from Latin splendidus “bright, shining, glittering; sumptuous, gorgeous, grand; illustrious, distinguished, noble; showy, fine, specious,” from splendere “be bright, shine, gleam, glisten,” from PIE *splnd- “to be manifest” (source also of Lithuanian splendžiu “I shine,” Middle Irish lainn “bright”). An earlier form was splendent (late 15c.). From 1640s as “brilliant, dazzling;” 1640s as “conspicuous, illustrious; very fine, excellent.” Ironic use (as in splendid isolation, 1843) is attested from 17c.
Other good ones that have a similar feel to ‘splendid’:
- exquisite, admirable, exemplary, sterling, magnificent, sublime, gorgeous, brilliant, inspirational, elegant
I still wonder slightly about ‘exemplary’. Sounds a tad comparative. ‘This is what you SHOULD be doing, instead of the dunder-headed, pointless way you’re going about things at present.’ But let’s leave it there for now, if only to provide variety.
Splendid has such a nice sound. It brings to mind a jolly hockey teacher at an English boarding school, with an unshakably positive mindset that she is doing her best to communicate her students.
So let’s not use ‘incredible’ or ‘unbelievable’ to describe acts of great kindness or courage, and especially not simple demonstrations of competence. Let’s not imply that humans, or specific individuals, are innately callous, cowardly or incompetent. Let’s acknowledge splendour wherever we see it. That would be splendid.
Bondi Junction, November 2019
I hope the woman whose photo I used at the top of this does not mind – it was just sitting there on the open internet. I just felt the photo captured so well the concept of pleasure at a job well done. Congratulations to that woman on the splendid work that led to her degree!