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18 April 2013

Edmund Wilson’s Words of Ill-Omen: “Superb” and “Fabulous”

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

By Edmund Wilson

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.

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