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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2001-06-1)

At one time or another, most of us have searched for a word to express strong approval or disapproval. Sometimes such a word or phrase acquires a kind of cult significance in a particular context. During the Second World War, for example, the Royal Air Force enshrined the word “wizard” as an expression of warm approval, sometimes used ironically, as in “Wizard prang!”

(For younger readers, a prang was an aircraft crash.) They also kept “Good show!” in circulation for a long while, and there is a story of a British prisoner-of-war who translated it literally into German, saying “Gut zeigen” on every possible occasion. This greatly irritated his German guards, who had no idea what he was talking about.

Fifty years on, “Good show” and “wizard” have pretty well disappeared from common speech; both sound old-fashioned and affected. But two words that took their place have stayed in fashion for decades – “fabulous” and “fantastic”. Let’s look at their real meanings. “Fabulous” means “feigned or false; …celebrated in story; immense, amazing; excellent (colloq)”. The sense of approval is the last of four possible meanings, and the least consistent: how can something “feigned or false” also be “excellent”?

“Fantastic” means “fanciful; not real; whimsical; capricious; wild; incredible; excellent (colloq)”. Given the “not real” meaning, it could only be a matter of time before “unreal” got into the act as a term of approval, and so it did. Apart from “not real; incredible; illusory,” the word now covers “amazing, unbelievable (colloq); a general expression of appreciation or admiration (slang, orig U.S.).”

So now we have three words in the armoury that we can use to express appreciation or admiration. Oddly, they all share the connotation of fantasy or unreality. But how are we to express the opposite, the striking nastiness of something? Easy – use one of the same words, but reverse its meaning by gesture and intonation.

I once had to attend a teachers’ seminar to discuss one of the educational fads of the day – I T A? Cuisenaire rods? Multibase arithmetic? I can’t remember. One of the young women present had applied the procedure in question to two similar classes, of which one had reacted very well, the other very badly. Or, as she put it, “One was fanTAAAStic! (arms waving, eyes bulging, voice soprano.) The other was just unREEEal! (arms lowered, eyes downcast, voice contralto).” The body language made it quite clear what she meant – “fantastic” = good and “unreal” = bad. But fantastic and unreal actually mean much the same thing. She had managed to give them exactly opposite meanings, and everyone understood her perfectly.

I looked around the room. There were about thirty people there, and only one of them smiled. I suppose that tells us something about our schools, but I’d rather not think about it.

Contextually yours, Ulysses Online.




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