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.]