Tuesday, December 18, 2018


There are words that have changed meaning over the generations. Think how cool went from “of or at fairly low temperature” to an expression of admiration and approval, sometime in the 1950s, and to this day. Think of how bad became someone who is super cool in the 1980s.

Words are the writers’ basic tools. So we have to know them and their ever-evolving meaning. Some are obvious when they morph, such as the above. A teen’s comment to another that “you’re so bad” is a statement of praise. Got it. But then there are the super subtle nuanced meanings that require a good ear.

One of these that have perplexed me is the evolution of the word interesting.

When I was growing up, and in the circles I inhabited, this was as high a praise you can bestow on a person or a thing. Aside from the obvious virtues of a principled character, intelligence and a good heart, being interesting is as good as it gets. But when DD became a tween, I discovered it has another meaning.

“Interesting,” she’d say, when she meant, “I don’t care for it but I won’t say that outright.” It is said in a different tone, one that suggests ambivalence. It got so I would follow these statements with a question, “do you mean it’s riveting or that it’s odd in a way you don’t really care for?”

Eventually I just asked,” do you mean ‘interesting!’ or ‘interesting... L’?”
I thought it was a generational thing, or possibly a cultural difference, as I grew up in another country. But recently I got some feedback on a manuscript that began with “Interesting.” After the period came a qualifying sentence that suggested the critic didn’t want to make an outright negative statement, but they were not favorably inclined.

So this other meaning of interesting has crossed over to my generation.

I find the subtleties of language, well, interesting.


Vijaya said...

One of Max's friends says, "Interesting" much too often so I asked him what he means. His response was much like your daughter's. Sigh. I hate it when something good becomes not so good, but that is the problem with languages.

G.K Chesterton responded to the idea that Latin is a "dead" language: "Every living language is a dying language, even if it does not die. Parts of it are perpetually perishing or changing their sense; there is only one escape from that flux; and a language must die to be immortal."

Mirka Breen said...

Speaking of dead-revived-renewing language, I discovered that in Hebrew the phrase "it's a waste of time" [חבל על הזמן] now means "You've got to see this!" You can imagine my confusion on my last visit to Israel, thinking folks were dismissive, when, in fact, they were enthusiastically praising this and that :O

Vijaya said...


Sherry Ellis said...

I've heard that connotation for interesting, too. I wonder what word those people use when something truly is interesting.

Evelyn said...

The whole idea of language evolving and changing is interesting to me. And I mean the good kind of interesting. :) Your Hebrew example seems really way out there to me. I have trouble imagining how that particular phrase came to mean basically the opposite.

Mirka Breen said...

"...I have trouble imagining how that particular phrase came to mean basically the opposite."

You and me, Sister.

ikmar said...

English is full of exactly that. Terrific originally meant full of terror. Cavalier meant brave and vigorous. Mistress meant wife (which is why the short form of Missus is Mrs.). You see it all the time in slang. In the 80's, deadly meant cool, in the 90's da bomb, sure phat had a different spelling but same thing. And wasn't it just last year that literally was changed to also mean figuratively?

Mirka Breen said...

Thank you for this terrifically interesting contribution, ikmar, and welcome aboard.

Alicia said...

I agree with this. "Interesting" has more of an neutral meaning now... perhaps when you don't quite know what to say or are in between one feeling or another.