Kewho Min asks, "Are we being too liberal with our use of the word 'brilliant'"?

Kewho Min asks, “Are we being too liberal with our use of the word ‘brilliant'”?

As a well-traveled New Yorker, I am no stranger to the word “brilliant.”

In Europe, “brilliant!” is the colloquial response of agreement, the exclamation of shared accord. It’s what you say when you hear good news or celebratory announcements—or any other disclosures that are at least moderately agreeable.

Your team at work wins a sought-after client? “Brilliant!”

Your wife tells you she landed that big promotion? “Brilliant!”

Your best friend sends you a “she said yes!” text that he got engaged? “Brilliant!” (Your best friend later calls you to report that he dumped said fiancé after learning that she was regularly shagging his other best friend? “Brilliant!”)

You get the idea, yes?

“Brilliant!” is to Europeans what “Cool!” is to Americans. It’s the over seas’ version of “Awesome!”  or “Good for you/him/her/them/us!” It’s an answer, statement, and affirmation. 

But here’s what “brilliant” is not: A catchall term to describe everything and everyone who is smart and/or talented and/or innovative. As an adjective, “brilliant” has become one of the most overused words whose frequency alone has begun to undermine its semantic value.

One of the little-known (or, at least, under-appreciated) job functions of a great accountant executive is “expectation setter,” which is a role that I cannot help but silently perform in everyday life. So, please allow me to don my “expectation setter” hat for the sake of suggestion to say, “Please, people, take a break from saying ‘brilliant.’”

Look, perhaps the so-called brilliant really are bloody brilliant. Even at its best, however, the word “brilliant” is highly subjective. If the people who insist on claiming “brilliant this” and “brilliant that” took their own limited capacity for objectivity into account, then we wouldn’t be so bombarded by their overly confident assessments. 

My recommendation? Self-intervention. Preempt your next calling-things-brilliant-that-probably-aren’t offense by asking yourself three questions. 

First, ask yourself “Am I talking about Prince?” If the weeks following Prince’s death have taught me nothing else, it’s that Prince is, among countless other things, an agreed upon benchmark for brilliance. So, if you’re seconds away from calling someone or something brilliant and you’re not talking about Prince or one of his songs, then think again. Is that so-called brilliant person or thing that you’re about to extol is not as brilliant as Prince? Probably not. 

Then, ask yourself “Am I just being lazy?” Dig a little deeper into the nomenclature of positive appraisal. Too often, people say brilliant, when they might actually mean excellent or special or terrific or insightful  or innovative or top-notch or spot-on. Most human beings are sluggards when it comes to choosing the right words to say what we mean.

Lastly, ask yourself: “Have I already called someone or something else ‘brilliant’ today or this week?” You’re probably being too liberal with the word if you’re saying it 20 times a day and you’re not attending a TED Conference or a Mensa meeting. Monitor frequency with the goal of being more selective and sincere about when you use it.