That dull word interesting

However dazzlingly original people try to be with language, much of the time they fall back on set phrases that are not so much clichés as expressions of the universals of the human experience: hello, goodbye, please, thank you, I love you, I'm so sorry to hear....

And thus most chefs, I imagine, don't mind if their cuisine is pronounced "delicious" by those who have just enjoyed it. Many of those in other artistic fields – painting, music, landscape design – are pleased to hear their fans call their work "beautiful."

For those of us who toil in the world of news and public affairs, the word we most want to hear, day in and day out, is "interesting."

Interesting? It's not exactly on a par with the philosopher's ideal of the good, the true, and the beautiful, is it?

A reader has reminded me of this particular deficit in the language: "The word that I use so much and find so boring and can't seem to find better choices [for] is 'interesting,' " she writes. "I could use help with this."

Hey, you and me both, sister!

Journalists are people who live in constant fear that readers/listeners/viewers/ visitors are always on the verge of turning the page, changing the channel, or clicking away to something else. To be "interesting" – to hold the reader's attention to the end – is about as good as it gets in this world.

"Interesting" is sometimes a bit of diplomatic lingo to cover an unsuccessful experiment, notably in the kitchen. "This sauce, dear, is really quite interesting." Note that this comment is rarely followed by, "May I have a second helping?"

The etymological roots of interesting and of interest, whence it comes, are far from clear. "There is much that is obscure in the history of this word," says the Oxford English Dictionary of "interest."

As a Latin word, interest is a verb that means "[it] is of importance, makes a difference" – words that are music to a journalist's ears, truly.

Early examples of interest were financial and legal. Interest in the sense of curiosity goes back to 1771: "That sparked my interest," that is, my attention.

The financial/legal and the intellectual senses of interested have gotten a little muddled at times.

I remember reading a biography of a 19th-century financier referred to as being "interested" in a particular company. What was meant, I realized after a moment of confusion, was that he owned a share of the firm. It had captured not only his attention but a share of his wallet.

The knock on interesting is that it's a lazy word. It's often used to signal, "My wheels are turning, but I don't yet really know what to think."

What synonyms could we press into service? There's engaging. But engaging doesn't keep its distance quite the way interesting does. If I find a movie "engaging," I'm not thinking about it; I'm caught up in it. That's why engaging is an appealing concept, but also why it's not an ideal synonym for interesting.

Interesting is a "think"; engaging is a "feel." And engaging doesn't do diplomatic service the way interesting sometimes does, as in the "interesting sauce."

Back in the days when it was easier for audiences to think of a guy in a Wehrmacht uniform as a comic figure, Arte Johnson used to do a shtick as a German soldier on the old "Laugh-In" television show. He managed to make a national catch phrase out of his cryptic utterance, "ver-r-r-r-ry interesting." Often followed with an abrupt addendum, delivered in a similar comic accent – "but shtupit!" – it was his comment on whatever silliness his fellow troupers had just presented.

It provided some (much-needed) breathing room in the fast-paced show. And it maybe was about as "interesting" as interesting ever gets.

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

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