March 27, 2013

What do people really mean by the word “vibrant?”

Until the disco era, “vibrant” was used only rarely, mostly in connection with vibrations, literal or metaphorical. A quick search online finds no examples of “vibrant” in the works of George Orwell or John Updike, one in Evelyn Waugh‘s (“that silence vibrant with self-accusation”), and two in Vladimir Nabokov‘s. (Humbert Humbert looks up to a “vibrant sky” through “nervous” rustling branches.)

According to Google’s Ngram, “vibrant” was an occasionally used word from the 1920s into the early 1970s. But then its share of all the words in books roughly quadrupled by the mid-2000s (when a few people finally started to make fun of it).

In 2013, it’s hard to avoid the word. For example, on Monday, President Obama announced, “Immigration makes us stronger”€”it keeps us vibrant….”

Similarly, when new Secretary of State John Kerry paid a visit to German Chancellor Angela Merkel last month, he announced that the American-German relationship is “one of our strongest, most vibrant alliances.” (Is “vibrant” the post-Cold War version of “dynamic?”)

And downtowns are always vibrant, or will be Real Soon Now: “Planners in Maine Envision Vibrant Downtowns.”

In particular, “vibrant” comes up relentlessly in real-estate-related articles. Vibrancy is the nirvana of urban planning.

“€œIf you can”€™t think of anything nice to say, just say “€˜vibrant.”€™”€

Every so often these days, the word is used reasonably. For example, the Washington Post‘s obituary last weekend for 94-year-old Cuban jazz great Bebo Valdes said he “helped create a vibrant, melodic style of music.” Presumably, most styles of music are more or less vibrant, but it’s hard to begrudge this usage.

Since roughly the disco era, however, “vibrant” has been the utility infielder of journalistic adjectives. If you wish to communicate to readers that they are supposed to think positively about something or someone but you can’t come up with reasons that are plausible, discreet, or acceptable in polite society, just toss in the word “vibrant.” As your mother would have taught you if she were a contemporary newspaper editor, if you can’t think of anything nice to say, just say “vibrant.”

Before the Vibrancy Era, “vibrant” didn’t necessarily have positive connotations. Nabokov’s 1948 short story Symbols and Signs, for instance, told of an incurably deranged man to whom “Man-made objects were…hives of evil, vibrant with a malignant activity that he alone could perceive….”

But now, “vibrant” is a synonym for “doubleplusgood.”

That’s why earthquakes are not “vibrant.” For example, if you Google “vibrant” and “earthquake,” you can find references to Haiti’s “vibrant literary community” and the “vibrant Haitian civil culture,” but not to that unfortunate country’s 2010 earthquake.

And yet questions remain, especially about the manifold ways the word is used in writing about communities.

In New Orleans, for example, why are both the post-apocalyptic Lower Ninth Ward and the prelapsarian Garden District, where Angelina and Brad like to lunch, frequently described as vibrant? Why are Latino communities always vibrant? Why is downtown Dubuque, Iowa vibrant, while Valparaiso, Indiana is not merely vibrant, but visionary? Why are contemplative art galleries considered essential to vibrancy?

Mostly, “vibrant” serves as a placeholder. For example, in January, The New York Times headlined an article about a not-too-bad black neighborhood in homicidal Chicago: “Diagnosis: Battered but Vibrant.” It’s a polite thing that white people say when they can’t think of anything else.

Often, vibrant is used to signify “growing.” Reporters especially like to find Mexicans “vibrant” as a tribute to their swelling numbers. In The New York Times last year, Adam Nagourney wrote redundantly about Los Angeles’s “vibrant and expanding population of Mexican-Americans.” In this context, “vibrant” signifies “minority…but not for long!”


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