Edmund Wilson's Words of Ill-Omen: "Superb" and "Fabulous"

The American man of letters teaches you how to use words.

Four: Superb and fabulous.

These words are, too, being terribly overworked and applied in inappropriate connections. Someone, for example, wrote somewhere of Bernard Baruch's "superb plan for atomic control". Now, superbus in Latin meant proud, and hence magnificent, splendid. Webster gives as its first meaning, "noble, stately, lordly, majestic"; then "rich, elegant, sumptuous". A statue may thus be superb; a palace may be superb; but how can a proposal by Mr Baruch be properly praised as superb?

Of course, Webster adds a third definition: "supremely good of its kind". Does this cover the Baruch plan? It seems to me that even in this more general use anything described as superb ought to possess some special magnificence of a physical or moral or aesthetic kind. But the word has come to be applied to almost anything one thinks rather good. It is especially a reviewer's cliché. For examples you have only to run your eye down the columns and advertisements of any paper or department devoted to books. In a non-literary context, a curious example occurs in Amid the Alien Corn: An Inrepid Englishman in the Heart of America, by High Willoughby. In a description of American football in a Middle-Western college, he says that "lavatory paper thrown high with an end loose makes a superb streamer".

This writer notes the American use of fabulous in the sense, as he says, simply of marvellous. This is a similar case of a word which has been robbed of its real implications. This indiscriminate use of fabulous has been probably brought on by such publishers' titles as The Fabulous Clip Joint, The Fabulous Comedian, The Fabulous Wilson Mizener, etc. I am told that in Hollywood the degrees of excellence are good, fabulous, fantastic.

6 September 1958.

Next up: Unhappily, unlucky and alas. Previous: Massive.

Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders in Absolutely Fabulous. Photo: BBC.

Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was a noted American writer, critic and social commentator who contributed occasional reviews and essays to the New Statesman.

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Why does food taste better when we Instagram it?

Delay leads to increased pleasure when you set up a perfect shot of your dinner.

Been on holiday? Take any snaps? Of course you did – but if you’re anything like me, your friends and family didn’t make it into many of them. Frankly, I can only hope that Mr Whippy and I will still be mates in sixty years, because I’m going to have an awful lot of pictures of him to look back on.

Once a decidedly niche pursuit, photographing food is now almost as popular as eating it, and if you thought that the habit was annoying at home, it is even worse when it intrudes on the sacred peace of a holiday. Buy an ice cream and you’ll find yourself alone with a cone as your companion rushes across a four-lane highway to capture his or hers against the azure sea. Reach for a chip before the bowl has been immortalised on social media and get your hand smacked for your trouble.

It’s a trend that sucks the joy out of every meal – unless, that is, you’re the one behind the camera. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that taking pictures of food enhances our pleasure in it. Diners at the food court of a farmers’ market in Philadelphia were asked either to photograph their meal or to eat “as you normally would”, then were questioned about how they found it. Those in the photography group reported that not only did they enjoy their meal more, but they were “significantly more immersed in the experience” of eating it.

This backs up evidence from previous studies, including one from this year in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, which found that participants who had been asked to photograph a red velvet cake – that bleeding behemoth of American overindulgence – later rated it as significantly tastier than those who had not.

Interestingly, taking a picture of a fruit salad had no effect on its perceived charms, but “when descriptive social norms regarding healthy eating [were] made salient”, photographing these healthier foods did lead to greater enjoyment. In other words, if you see lots of glossy, beautifully lit pictures of chia seed pudding on social media, you are more likely to believe that it’s edible, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This may seem puzzling. After all, surely anything tastes better fresh from the kitchen rather than a protracted glamour shoot – runny yolks carefully split to capture that golden ooze, strips of bacon arranged just so atop plump hemispheres of avocado, pillowy burger buns posed to give a glimpse of meat beneath. It is hardly surprising that 95 million posts on Instagram, the photo-sharing site, proudly bear the hashtag #foodporn.

However, it is this delay that is apparently responsible for the increase in pleasure: the act of rearranging that parsley garnish, or moving the plate closer to the light, increases our anticipation of what we are about to eat, forcing us to consider how delicious it looks even as we forbid ourselves to take a bite until the perfect shot is in the bag. You could no doubt achieve the same heightened sense of satisfaction by saying grace before tucking in, but you would lose the gratification that comes from imagining other people ogling your grilled Ibizan sardines as they tuck in to an egg mayonnaise at their desk.

Bear in mind, though, that the food that is most successful on Instagram often has a freakish quality – lurid, rainbow-coloured bagel-croissant hybrids that look like something out of Frankenstein’s bakery are particularly popular at the moment – which may lead to some unwise menu choices in pursuit of online acclaim.

On the plus side, if a diet of giant burgers and salted-caramel lattes leaves you feeling queasy, take heart: if there is one thing that social media likes more than #avotoast, it is embarrassing oversharing. After a week of sickening ice-cream shots, a sickbed selfie is guaranteed to cheer up the rest of us. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser