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As announced in this column yesterday, I am teaming up with the ATP people - Adjective Trend Plotting, the people who chart the world rankings of all adjectives - to organise the poll to find the Adjective of the Century.
“By this we mean the adjective which has most affected lives,” says ATP boss, Oscar Beussberger. “We don’t mean the adjective which has been most widely used. I mean, you wouldn’t vote for the common cold as the Disease of the Century, would you! In fact, we think the most commonly used adjective in recent times is “new”, and a boring little adjective it is too. No, what we’re after is an adjective which is so ubiquitous and yet charismatic that it has wormed its way into people’s conscious, unconscious and subconscious! By the way, I think I have already used some of the prime candidates for the adjective of the year in my introductory speech, namely ‘ubiquitous’, ‘charismatic’ and ‘conscious’. Not to mention ‘prime’.”
Can you vote for an adjective you don’t like?
“Certainly!” booms the extrovert Oscar Beussberger. (Incidentally, did you notice another candidate there - ‘extrovert’...?) “I’m all for it! Some of the most unpleasant adjectives are actually some of the most insidiously useful. ‘Inappropriate’ is probably the nastiest adjective around today, but so many people hide behind it that I fear it will get many votes. ‘Dystopian’ and ‘Dysfunctional’ are two more adjectives of the kind that I call Sunday-paper adjectives, i.e. pretentious, over-used and near-meaningless. Ghastly, all of them, but I expect them to get votes.”
Oscar Beussberger says that most fashionable adjectives tend to come from specialised areas and then to win appeal on a broad front. The arts have given us adjectives like “mimetic”, “aleatory”, “noir”, and “cathartic”. Medicine has given us “chronic” and “clinical”. The law has given us “draconian” and “forensic”, as well as “proven”.
“Oddly enough,” says Oscar,” ‘proven’ was never found outside Scotland till recently, in the Scottish verdict ‘not proven’, but it was then taken up by the world of advertising, which is always desperately looking for old-fashioned synonyms. Have you noticed the way ‘cleanse’ has replaced ‘clean’ in ads, for example? ‘Cleanse’ sounds more trustworthy, doesn’t it? Sounds as if it gets deeper than mere ‘cleaning’, doesn’t it? Similarly, they have taken to using ‘proven’ because it sounds more solid than ‘proved’. ‘With proven, cleansing qualities...’
“Of course, a lot of these words change their meaning when they become popular, like ‘forensic’ and ‘clinical’ - or should I say that people use them wrongly ? People use the word ‘forensic’ as if it means something to do with laboratories or post-mortems, but it just means to do with the law. People use ‘chronic’ to mean ‘terrible’, even though it just means ‘long-lasting’.
“Another source of potent adjectives is the sociological field.‘Disadvantaged’, ‘feminist’, ‘supportive’ and ‘aware’ might get a look in, though all these things have a limited shelf life. Not as limited as slang adjectives, of course. I doubt whether we shall get many votes from the young for ‘awesome’ or ‘wicked’ or ‘cool’ or ‘mega’, any more than we shall get votes from their parents for forgotten trendy adjectives like ‘groovy’ and ‘fab’ and ‘heavy’.
Oscar Beussberger shudders slightly, perhaps at the thought of his own youth.
“Anyway, the way the poll works is this. YOU, Mr Kington, ask your readers to nominate their choice for the ten adjectives which most encapsulate the twentieth century.”
And then I pass the voting forms across to you?
“You can if you like. It won’t make much difference, though. We at the ATP have already selected the ten adjectives most symbolic of the century. It wouldn’t do to leave it to the voters, would it? Can’t really trust the public, can we? Leave it to the grown-ups, I think.”
But surely, of all things, adjectives are things that are used by the public? So they should know!
“Dear oh dear oh dear. That’s like saying that cars are things used by the public, so they should know how to use them. But all road deaths are caused by the public!”
Hmmmm. So what are your pre-selected top ten adjectives
“Got a list here somewhere,” says Oscar Beussberger, searching his jacket pocket. “Yes, here we are. The top ten typical twentieth century adjectives are: ‘Marxist, fascist, global, modern, genetic, corporate, gay, fat-free, user-friendly, carcinogenic and...”
And ?
So that’s it, then. At last, a millennial poll you don’t have to vote in. It’s all been settled for you.

The Independent for the issue of Thursday Mar 4 1999

© Caroline Kington