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"Prestigious" has lost its cachet

The Baltimore Sun

Yesterday I tweeted about deleting prestigious. The first part of the argument was that when a thing genuinely possesses prestige, people know it. You don’t have to call a Nobel Prize “prestigious.” The second part was that if people don’t know it, a mere adjective will not confer prestige.

Then @PatWallace05 responded, “But if I'm writing about China for a US audience, they may need to be told that Fudan is a ‘prestigious’ university.”

I suggested that it would be better to indicate why the university has prestige. Is it highly selective? Is it a school for children of the Party elite? Does it produce Nobel laureates? A short phrase would tell the reader more than a threadbare adjective.

“Threadbare” answers another reader’s question: “Then why is it a word?” It is a perfectly good word, the adjective for “possessing prestige,” that has been worn smooth by careless overuse.

Some may be startled to think that prestigious is overused, but I toil in the grimy mills of daily journalism. The particular instance that prompted the tweet was the appearance of prestigious applied to the Preakness race. If you have to tell Maryland readers that the Preakness has prestige, then you are either assuming that they are less informed than the freed prisoners blinking in the daylight in Fidelio, or you are merely using the adjective to convey “Lookee here, we’re writing about something important.”

It is also possible that prestigious may suggest condescension to the reader: “I’m in the know about what’s what and you’re not.”

Journalism is prone to these pumped-up adjectives struggling to make pedestrian subjects sound important. Coveted is one such, as in writing about the Charles Foster Kane Medal for Meretricious Headlines. Who covets the Kane prize? The people whose entries didn’t win it, not the reader.

The Old Editor Says* has this entry: “Use the God-given delete key on these: ‘controversial,’ ‘dramatic,’ ‘legendary, ‘massive,’ ‘prestigious,’ ‘storied.’ ”

This is not the simple-minded advice you find online to go through your work and eliminate all the adjectives (or adverbs, or passives). This is advice to show the reader why something has provoked controversy or how an event is dramatic rather than rely on overworked shorthand.

Just remember: I have a delete key, and I’m not afraid to use it.

 

 

*Available at Amazon.com for a modest sum. Operators are standing by.

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