Visionary

A reader writes:
“I just searched LinkedIn on the word “visionary” and got 27,000-plus hits. What do you suppose it means to be (or not to be) visionary? And what does it mean to describe oneself as a visionary?

Tony responds:
“Visionary” used to be one of those exceptional, superlative terms reserved for extraordinary people capable of remarkable things. But such words tend to fall, sooner or later, into a kind of inflationary spiral — think of “brilliant,” “unique,” “amazing,” and “genius” — after which they end up being applied to practically everyone who is capable of sitting up and taking solid food.

In its pre-inflationary use, “visionary” described people who see things that others do not see: distant horizons, undiscovered worlds, future ages, secret laws of the universe. (In some uses of the word, dating back at least to Jonathan Swift, the “visions” of visionary people weren’t always considered so inspiring. The Oxford English Dictionary includes among its definitions of the term “given to fanciful and unpractical views,” and cites several 18th and 19th century uses with that meaning. Lately, though, the term is most often meant to be flattering.)

How many people, would you say, can really see visions unavailable to most mortals? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I’m pretty sure the number isn’t as high as 27,000. That’s how many times a Communications Network member found the word used on LinkedIn. Some of those uses apparently entailed people applying the word to themselves. That kind of goofy immodesty makes me suspect that these folks’ “visions” don’t include seeing what’s in the mirror.

It’s too bad, really. Every once in a while, you really do run across someone who seems able to peer deep into the misty realms beyond the imaginations of most of us regular people. There used to be a fine word to describe such a rare being. There isn’t any more.

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