Gratuitous word violence

Some weeks ago I was editing a magazine article – a lifestyle feature on young families in the suburbs who were spiffing up their backyards with the help of a local landscaper.

One of the backyards was said to afford a "killer view" of the skyline of the major city nearby.

Hmm, I thought. "A 'killer view'?" After years at the Monitor, I find it's second nature to question gratuitous violence in an article, even rhetorical violence. And after all, this is a lifestyle feature, not a report on the Mahdi Army.

Let's make it a "stunning view," instead, I thought. Well, the cliché police should have nailed me on that one.

My own editorial musings continued along another track, however: "Stunning" has long meant "strikingly beautiful." But what's the metaphor behind it? More violence! Someone takes after someone else with a club and clobbers 'em. Now that's a lovely bit of mental imagery, is it not?

But has the word reached the point where the literal meaning has given way to a figurative one? A quick check of dictionaries suggests that the "clobbering" sense is holding its own.

Here's the first of the "quick definitions" for "stunning" at onelook.com: "Causing or capable of causing bewilderment or shock or insensibility (Example: 'Laid the poor fellow senseless with one stunning blow')."

The second definition is "causing great consternation or astonishment." "Strikingly beautiful or attractive" – a usage some dictionaries tag as "colloquial" – comes only third.

The 1913 Webster's first definition of "stunning" is: "Overpowering consciousness; overpowering the senses; especially, overpowering the sense of hearing; confounding with noise." An earlier antique Webster, the 1828 dictionary, similarly stresses the audio aspect of being "stunned." For example: "To prevent being stunned, cannoneers sometimes fill their ears with wool."

But hold on a bit – what about that "strikingly," modifying "beautiful"? Once I've started down this path, I have to acknowledge that it's another bit of verbal violence.

Sometimes we're "struck" not just by someone's good looks, which can have a literal aspect to it (as when a young man distracted by a pretty girl walks into a telephone pole), but by an idea. "I was struck by the thought that I should call him back right away." Or, "It suddenly hit me that it would be cheaper to move there than to keep commuting."

A visitor from another planet may well wonder what's up with people who get into punching matches with their own thoughts. But it can happen, apparently.

A few weeks ago a man was arrested in South Carolina after getting into an altercation with some shrubbery. Given that shrubs almost never punch first, I have to think the initial affront was all in the man's imagination.

Another expression with a fair bit of force concealed behind a mild-mannered appearance is the phrasal preposition "by dint of," meaning "by means of." I think I first encountered it in one of the "Anne of Green Gables" books in seventh grade or so. But in the dictionary the other day, I ran across "dint," the noun, and found that its literal sense packs quite a punch. It means blow, or stroke, or force of assault. It's related to the "dent" you put in your car. It pops up in idioms like "by dint of sword" – by force of arms, we would say today. Not very Anne of Green Gablesish.

And whatever happened to the "killer view"? On a subsequent rewrite, it became a "million-dollar view." It was a sensible solution. Nonviolent, and reasonably fresh. Even though a million dollars isn't what it used to be – despite a real estate slump.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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