When Interesting isn’t interesting

Part of trying to write involves putting pressure on the terms that come up, again and again, unwilled and unwanted, in your writing—those greatly elastic words that band together a wide variety of complex ideas, and, though not altogether useless in themselves, rarely attain specificity or precision. In spoken language, it is hard to escape the word “incredible.” It comes in three flavors: strong (“cannot be believed”), weak (“hard to believe”), and weakest (“like, really good”); the latter is, of course, the most prevalent. Only occasionally does this weakness matter much—I enjoyed for instance, when BBC attack-dog Jeremy Paxman tore into Prime Minister David Cameron’s description of the Imperial War Museum as “incredible”; “the whole point of the place is its awful credibility.”)

Another such word is “particular”; it is an irony in the quest for precision that we so often fall on the word “particular,” especially in academic prose. “Particularly” and “in particular” appear everywhere in specialist writing, the trace of the author’s desire to go beyond the superficial and into the specific—it’s a hope that often leads to misuse. Such words, in their overabundance, act as placeholders: tics in spontaneous communication that tumble out of our mouths or our fingers, and which require rethinking and refining.

It has been in the pursuit of “particularity” that I have falling into thinking about another of these overly common words: interesting. “Interesting” is a word I am constantly excising from my prose. A swift tap of Command + F usually illuminates a constellation of its occurrences in any given first draft; “Interesting that . . . ,” “It is interesting to observe . . . ,” “An interesting fact . . . .” What do I think this judgment is adding to anything? If we really believe that something is interesting, then surely its interestingness should be self-evident. Must it really be flagged up, in a flagrantly unsophisticated way? I wouldn’t write that I merely liked something, nor that a thing holds intellectual appeal to me, at least not without validating that statement. Yet, “interesting” often sneaks by without making a case for itself. And once you start seeing it in your own work, you notice it everywhere. Interesting, despite its insufficiency as an autonomous unit, has a tenacious hold on writing and on everyday speech.

Its frequency in part relates to the fact that we expect it to pull a huge amount of weight. The Oxford English Dictionary places it in “Frequency Band 7,” reserved for “the substance of ordinary, everyday speech and writing”; it joins words like “man,” “woman,” “large,” “good,” “right,” which puts it in the top 2% of common words. Given that its usage is often so banal, it seems fitting that its etymology is equally nondescript: from the Latin inter–esse, “to be between.” Between what? “Interesting” doesn’t usually tell us, and its dictionary definitions are so broad as to border on vagueness: “That concerns, touches, affects, or is of importance”; “Adapted to excite interest; having the qualities which rouse curiosity, engage attention, or appeal to the emotions; of interest.”

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We’re unhelpfully dumped at the door of the definition of the noun “interest,” which carries us through: objective concern; investment; a right to something; spiritual privileges; participation in doing something; a stake or share or claim; affect and affection; benefit or profit or advantage (“in your best interest”’); the fact or quality of mattering or being of importance. That last one seems to contain them all, and is the ruling principle of “interesting” as a verbal tic: “This thing matters!” But “interest” creates a field of significance so wide that it is hard to know what it means to matter.

- Literary Hub


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