Sunday, 14 April 2013

Coruscating Happy People

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The writer’s armoury has a red door in the corner with a black skull and crossbones stencilled on it, behind which we keep a select array of showoffy Latinate words.  Nothing wrong with that, as long as they’re used with discernment for rare surgical strikes. All too often, though, writers scatter them around willy-nilly, like landmines in a potato field.

The adjective coruscating, that favourite of arts reviewers keen for the reader not to twig that they have nothing at all to say, is one such – or it would be, if most of those who deploy it actually knew what the damned thing meant. But I’ll come to that. Even on the rare occasion when coruscating is used properly, what’s the point? It’s no smart bomb; it’s surplus materiel — an unnecessary, character-wasteful synonym for sparkling, gleaming or just good old no-nonsense shiny. Even if you’re tempted to use it because you’re convinced that only a showoffy Latinate word will adequately fill a particular hole in a text you’re writing, then scintillating or incandescent should serve your purpose well enough.

But that’s not how I see people using it at all. Instead, they use it to mean acerbic, mordant or edgy. What are they thinking? I imagine that what they're thinking goes something like this. “Coruscating has got cor– in it. Excoriating and corrosive have got cor– in them too. Therefore, showoffy Latinate words with cor– in them always refer to astringent, exfoliating, ominously-smoking-dollop-of-KY-Jellyish-gloop-drooled-sulphurically-in-an-Alien-film, paint-strippy sorts of things.”
A check of recent uses of coruscating in British newspapers confirms the impression that I’ve had for a while: writers, even professional ones whose copy is subedited, don’t just balls it up often, they balls it up more often than not. What was the exception is the new rule. The cause is lost.

The adjective coruscating has become what American copy-editors — when faced with enervate, decimate, bemused, beg the question or any other word or expression that too many people think means something other than what it’s supposed to mean (hi, misogynist!) — call "skunked”. 

It's stained, it stinks and it's irrecoverably spoiled. There's only one thing for it: throw it away.