The Language Perfectionist: Are You Intrigued?

While reading the business pages of a newspaper recently, this lead caught my attention:

“Next Jump may well be the most intriguing Internet business that you’ve never heard of….”

No, I don’t follow high-tech stocks for investment purposes. What, er… intrigued me about this sentence was the word intriguing. Is it correct?

Language stickler Theodore M. Bernstein, in his classic usage guide The Careful Writer, is adamantly negative:

“This is a use that is best avoided… Intrigue has become a fuzzy, all-purpose word to express meanings for which there are already perfectly good, precise words such as mystify, enchant, interest, pique, and excite.

Although I usually agree with Bernstein, I tend to be liberal and tolerant on this particular issue. Since his book was published in 1965, the word’s meaning has become more flexible.

Consider these examples:

  • “Mechanical museum intrigues York County newcomers.”
  • “One of the oldest carved stones ever found in the Highlands of Scotland has given experts an intriguing mystery to solve.”
  • “If Glee intrigues you, get ready for singing detectives.”

Although intrigue once properly referred only to illicit love affairs, secret spy plots, conspiracies, and other such machinations, it’s acceptable today as an alternative to fascinate and the other synonyms Bernstein lists. Moreover, it can sometimes be the best choice for the context, creating a vivid image that other words fail to convey.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.