Brother and sister duo, Angus and Julia Stone. In Julia's song, Catastrophe she sings repeatedly 'And we wait for something beautiful.' Photo: ABC
It began, so far as I know, as the go-to word of a certain flock of neo hippies. The types who will bunker down in the mud for a week at remote music festivals; who believe that face painting has relevance beyond the age of 6, and for whom white girl belly dancing is not simply a hobby, but a way to ‘get in touch with your body.’
For these people, the word ‘beautiful’ ceased to be used in its rightful context around 1996. No longer confined to descriptions of people’s faces, babies or sunsets, it was now airborne. Sentences such as ‘I had a beautiful conversation with Samson last night – did you know his guinea pig died when he was eight?’ began to crop up.
I was not alarmed by them, putting the misuse of the word down to accidental inhalation of bong water, among other shame-reducing substances.
But then, the worm turned. More people began using it in place of other, more apt words, as a way to soften their descriptions. ‘I had a beautiful vaginal birth’ for instance, and ‘Jayson is such a beautiful guy’, which was not about Jayson’s looks. Indeed, it could only mean one thing – that Jayson was unattractive but attentive.
And he probably owned an acoustic guitar.
More damning still was the edict that someone had a ‘beautiful soul’. This person, while probably wise in the way of remedial massage, was also likely to be a zaftig with brittle hair, a leathery decolletage and teeth the colour of beer.
Then – it appeared in print. Last month Former Leonardo's Bride singer Abby Dobson auditioned for The Voice. Her audition didn’t go so well, unfortunately, and Abby admitted as much with good grace. But it was her post mortem of the event that struck me. To wit:
"Because I'm older and I've had a lot of beautiful success, my career isn't going to be affected ... “
Abby went on
"Given the beautiful response from fans ... and the clarity that experience has given me to move forward with the next record, yes I would do it again."
I know that the English language is fluid. I’m unembarrassed to admit that I’m still talking in abreeves. I know that the meanings behind many words have morphed – and not in a good way. ‘Bemused’ for example is often used in place of ‘amused’ but if you’re truly bemused you’re perplexed. People say they feel ‘nauseous’ when they’re sick. But the proper word is ‘nauseated’ otherwise, it’s like saying you feel ‘poisonous’ when you have taken poison. And yet, these words have remained bolted into our lexicon. I feel ok with that. Stuff happens.
I understand too, the power and novelty of using a word in a completely different or unexpected way – it’s how we stop ourselves from falling into clichés and what great poetry is all about.
What I am not ok with, however, is this dropping of the word ‘beautiful’ in place of other, more fitting words. It’s pretentious and limiting, like bringing a carafe of port to a barbecue. On the beach.
I blame Masterchef for its mainstream proliferation. Since 2009 the judges have grasped for the right superlative, one which would transcend ‘foodie’ descriptions and elevate prime time dishes made by amateur cooks to their alleged rightful status – equal to great art and love affairs. But honestly, it just made them look like wankers.
‘What a beautiful piece of lamb, Marion!’ one of them would exclaim.
Because ‘delicious’ is, what - unoriginal? And ‘tasty’ is most certainly too low rent for a show sponsored by, among other things, Coles supermarkets. It quickly became contagious, as words so often do, spreading to the contestants. Below, a sample of the 'beautiful' disease.
It was around this time that the word appeared in the sentences of people I thought were normal. An old boss of mine could not stop using it. ‘What I’d like is just a really beautiful statement from the public relations officer.’
‘This is a beautiful article but something isn’t sitting right with me.’
And so on.
The additional problem of using the word so often in the wrong way is that when she said it in the right way I didn’t believe her. ‘Oh, my friend Sasha is really beautiful’ for instance would lead to follow-up questions, such as 'In what way exactly?' and ‘Are you sure?’
‘Have you seen The Intouchables? Guys, it’s such a beautiful movie.” Is probably the most recent time I heard the word misused. 'Beautiful' in this context probably means ‘thought provoking’ and maybe ‘enjoyable’ but for some reason, evoking ‘beautiful’ meant the movie – and the viewer - were now closer to God.
And that I guess is my main problem with the shoehorning of ‘beautiful’ into not-quite-right sentences: it snatches meaning away from the description of the thing and plonks it down on the person saying it. Put simply, it says more about the person saying it than anything being said. Which is a devastatingly beautiful shame, don’t you think?