I’m bang out of useful ideas at the minute, so I have decided to fall back on the old faithful of complaining about how certain words get used. There is a tendency to think that people who complain about words are incorrigibly conservative, the sort of people who put ‘Keep Off The Grass’ signs on their back lawns, iron their underpants, and yearn for the days when you could discipline children with the thwap! of a hard leather strap. But this is not quite true.
Everyone remembers the bit in Grease where Danny says to Sandy ‘that’s my name, don’t wear it out.’ Although there is not much to wear out in the name Danny, Mr Zucko does display an understanding that words, perhaps like hoover bags, can be abused to the point where they lose all meaningful content. Such is the case with today’s word: vibrant.
‘Assembly Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie said the £6m project would create a “distinctive, vibrant and multi-functional city centre“.
(God knows what ‘multi-functional’ means here. A Swiss Army knife springs to mind)
Before you start running to the online dictionary to check up on the meanings registered there, let me say that I do not care what the dictionary says, since this merely registers the meanings that people give to words.
If, in 20 years, people are using the word ‘donkey’ predominantly to mean a particular type of chair, then the dictionary entry will say ‘1. Donkey (n.): Chair, often found in one-bedroom apartments. 2. Patient animal with big ears.’ If I then say that Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, no doubt people will rush to their dictionaries with a view to demonstrating that it is also possible that what I really mean here is that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a large fur-lined recliner.
So it is with vibrant. The primary meaning is simply ‘vibrating’. But it has acquired an exclusively positive meaning in common parlance. It is hard to trace this usage to any particular moment. Perhaps the mass production of electrical and combustion-powered tools and other machines is what brought it about. Vibrancy, felt by placing one’s hand on a car or a fridge, was intimation that all was well with the world, the rate of profit was on the way up, the beach was an hour away, and the pork pies were safe. There is also, of course, vibration as a component of music, in particular amplified and reproduced music. I got that vibe.
Yet the fact that something is vibrating need not indicate that all is well. Something could be vibrating because it is about to explode. A person could be vibrating because they’ve just been shot with a tazer. For not shopping hard enough, or for lingering too long in the queue for burgers.