Could we please just tone it down?


The publisher Paul Dry recently told me he is bothered by over-use of the word “brilliant.” In Britain, the word is used as a mild exclamation. The good-natured Prince William, for example, uses it in interviews to express agreement—“That’s brilliant!” he’ll say.

But the British are masters of understatement, and thus when they use hyperbole it’s meant flippantly or ironically—an extravagant adjective for a trivial thing. In this country, however, “brilliant” still means someone or something of exceptional, indeed dazzling, intelligence. Yet it’s now used, as Dry notes, far too often. Has our society really become so infused with brilliance? Or has “brilliant” merely become the default term for moderate worth?

The problem crops up when I need to write letters of recommendation for students. I feel I must praise them extravagantly if graduate schools or potential employers are going to consider them at all. When I sit on a tenure review committee, I see my fears realized: the committee tends to interpret a letter that doesn’t describe the candidate as “brilliant” to be a tepid one.

I used to advise my students to remove extravagant adjectives from their papers if they were trying for a powerful effect. Too much easy praise seems lazy and rote; it tends to undermine rather than bolster its object. But my advice may now be out of date. When extravagant adjectives are being sprayed like overly sweet perfume all around, if my students fail to use such words I fear they may be ignored for not smelling good enough.

And the problem continues to spread. Recently, I attended a round of speeches given at academic and social functions where speakers praised the audience for its “brilliance”—a new but not unexpected turn. Presumably, the speakers meant to flatter us in order to assure that we would praise them as “brilliant” in turn. It seems an unsavory bargain. I am reminded of Shakespeare’s Sonnet # 138: “Therefore I lie with her, and she with me, / And in our faults by lies we flattered be.”

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Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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