Vibrant

Submitted by an anonymous contributor, who writes:

It’s a word I’ve grown to hate, especially when used to describe a community, as in “We seek to build and preserve vibrant communities.” Photos of ethnic festivals (swirling dancers! bright costumes!) or ethnic markets (exotic produce!) are almost always included alongside the words “vibrant community.”

Tony Proscio responds:

To me, when I read “vibrant community”, I think of a particular kind of neighborhood that upper class white people visit once or twice each summer for a dose of invigorating—but tasteful– immigrant culture.

For certain words, we need a new category — something different from jargon, closer to cliché, but also something more. We need a word to designate those grating, overused expressions that get trotted out whenever the purpose is to make the speaker seem bold and sophisticated, but that end up oozing all sorts of unspecified, unexamined, and maybe unwanted meanings, like that expensive fountain pen that leaked all over your shirt during your first big job interview.

They aren’t technical or abstruse, these words, so we can’t call them jargon. They’re not even unfamiliar, although on first hearing they may well conjure absolutely no idea or picture in any reader’s mind. They’re vague and amorphous, although they probably used to be colorful or pleasing … the first 1,000 times they were used. But then they got tiresome.

Now, up to this point, we’re still just describing a cliché. A “world-class” event, a “robust” program, a “deep-dive” analysis — we recognize the species. Poor, overworked little expressions that show up everywhere, like Elvis impersonators, full of verve and bonhomie but guaranteed to ruin any happy occasion.

Now, consider a currently trendy expression that someone has nominated to the Jargon Finder: “vibrant,” as in: “a vibrant arts sector,” or “a vibrant after-school program.” In those uses, the word is merely tired, fast becoming a cliché. But there are other contexts where the vagueness of its meaning can actually cause real trouble. The nominator’s e-mail deserves to be quoted at length:

“I especially hate it when [“vibrant” is] used to describe a community, as in “We seek to build and preserve vibrant communities.” Photos of ethnic festivals (swirling dancers! bright costumes!) or ethnic markets (exotic produce!) are almost always included alongside the words “vibrant community.” To me, when I read “vibrant community”, I think of a particular kind of neighborhood that upper-class white people visit once or twice each summer for a dose of invigorating—but tasteful—immigrant culture.”

Most people who use “vibrant” probably don’t intend to evoke any of those feelings. I have heard the word used by people who are neither upper-class nor white, and who are not inclined toward condescension. They’d be appalled to learn not only that their word is exhausted and overused — but that it also may have ticked someone off.

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