‘Nondescript’ says more than ‘plain’

Bob Kamman of Arizona writes:

“Am I the only one who has noticed the increasing use of the adjective ‘nondescript,’ even in publications (NYT, New Yorker) usually known for stories that describe things? I just did a Google News search and found 590 hits from the last month. In January 2006 there are only 27 hits. (Of course, Google was tracking fewer publications then.)”

Journalists, as we’ve said before, do seem to adopt terms, which then explode in usage. Whether “nondescript” is one of them is debatable—a Nexis search shows about 250 uses of “nondescript” in U.S. newspapers, wire services and blogs in January, as opposed to about 420 in the same month in 2006—but it affords the opportunity to see why anyone would use such a “nondescript” word.

“Nondescript” means “so lacking in recognizable character or qualities as to belong to no definite class or type; hard to classify or describe,” or “not interesting; colorless; drab,” according to Webster’s New World College Dictionary. It belongs to that class of words where we seem to use only the negative form, such as “nonplussed,” “debauch,” and “discombobulate.”

Kamman noted that “descript” appears occasionally online, though mostly because it’s the name of a computer program. In Nexis, about the only uses of “descript” aside from hyphenated uses of “non-descript” is as a shorthand noun for “description,” as in “the job descript.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “descript” as an adjective meaning “described” or “properly arranged,” which in some ways means the opposite of “not interesting,” if you take the long way around.

Using “nondescript” to mean “plain,” “unadorned,” or “unassuming” is useful, of course. Here’s one example, talking about an automotive company: “‘Have you seen their office building in Houston?’ Ward asks. ‘It’s totally nondescript. Very plain. And frankly, that’s just what an investor would hope to see.”

Here’s another: “It is sturdily middle-class and middle-aged. Once a mill town, it is resolutely run-of-the-mill, a generic, gracious New England community of solid schools and modest homes. It’s surrounded by forest and has one McDonald’s and two Dunkin’ Donuts. But this nondescript bedroom community turns out to have a singular distinction: It’s the state’s most statistically typical town.”

That seems a little too much “description” for something that’ s “nondescript.”’ And “nondescript” carries a slightly negative connotation; much of the “description” is positive (“gracious,” “solid schools”),and some is negative (“resolutely run-of-the-mill”), muddling the writer’s point.

If something really is “nondescript,” it’s not worth describing. So don’t overdo it, or you’ll end up as “je ne sais quoi.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , ,