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Learned Volume 3, Issue 51
Welcome to Learned, a short, weekly look at language, education, and everything else under the sun. I’m Joel, linguist, teacher, slacker. This week, we're vibin'. Just vibin'.
"Good Vibrations" hit the airwaves in late 1966. Written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love, the song represented a change in musical direction for The Beach Boys and a change in what was possible for pop music. Over the course of three minutes and thirty-five seconds, the narrator, backed by a chorus of psuedo-barbershop-quartet affirmations, reveals that he is getting a really good feeling from the girl he has just met.
As the story goes, Brian Wilson wanted to call the song Good Vibes. When hired lyricist Tony Asher insisted he change the lyrics to "good vibrations" to better fit the melody, Wilson protested that that was not how people actually talked. And he was right. Beginning in the late 50s or early 1960s, as newly minted ancient traditions rooted in the ideas of cosmic energy took hold amidst the general grooviness of the San Francisco flower power scene, vibes emerged as a way of describing the feelings of a place, person, or ideas*. It has remained popular throughout the ensuing decades, so much so, in fact, that it, like all popular words before it, is facing a pushback from those who decry its use.
Just so we're all on the same page, here are a few definitions of vibe. From Merriam-Webster:
(n) a distinctive feeling or quality capable of being sensed
(v) to enjoy music; to be in harmony; to convey a sense of (a place, a feeling, etc.)
And, because this word is undergoing yet another resurgence via Tik Tok, here's the urban dictionary definition:
To chill , be at peace, & let life do it's (sic) thing.
Nice. Even wholesome. So now for the backlash. In 2013, The New York Times conducted an audit of its writing and found that the words ~centric and vibe appeared more from the mid-aughts onward than they had in the preceding three decades. Their conclusion? They needed to find different words to use. In a follow-on piece, The Atlantic conducted a similar review (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) of The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post, and their own blog, The Atlantic Wire. Conclusion? The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic sat, relatively vibe-free in a field of reasonable use. The New York Post, however, used vibe almost egregiously, especially in its lifestyle section.
Three years later, in a piece published on Medium, writer Jenny Bahn declared, "we have reached peak vibes," and called for an end to the casual use of the word on social media, arguing that vibes is a cheap way of avoiding having to use a word representing a real feeling. The word seems to have become relegated to that most horrid of states: the hashtag.
Okay. Perhaps three articles do not a backlash make. However, I think it's worth taking a look at the shared point between all three articles - there are better words to use in many situations. Thesaurus.com, in fact, promises 437 different synonyms for vibes. But I disagree. On the Thesaurus.com site, the first dozen or so words listed as replacement are all...spooky. The reason for this is that Thesaurus.com breaks up its 400+ definitions by relating them to the various meanings of vibes. And so the spooky ones on the first tab are all treating vibe as a synonym of portent. Which, okay, but what about the other sixteen tabs?
In The Atlantic article, author Eric Levenson cites the following uses of vibes by The Atlantic Wire:
The recent Princess Diana film had a "Lifetime-y vibe." Brooklyn has a "casual, smart kind of Bohemian vibe."
I don't have a problem with either of these and, in fact, Levenson states that these are the best uses from their magazine. But, for the sake of exercise, which of the following words from Thesaurus.com would you use in their place: portent, premonition, presentiment, reaction, reply, response, sensation, sensibility, sixth sense, undercurrent, fellow feeling, local color, retroaction, sensitiveness, emotion, feel, or foreboding?
Myself, I'd go for feel to replace vibe in both cases, but, honestly? I don't think they need to be replaced. (And, as stated, the article calls these the best uses. I'm curious to know what they would call the egregious cases, but they don't say.) In other words, sure, vibes is being overused right now. But so was chill and so was groove and so was whatever came before those. It'll pass. And before long there will be something entirely new to take its place. I look forward to vibing** with it, whatever it is.
Until next time, stay chill, stay groovy. Learn something.
*I know, I know, massive over-simplification and confluence of separate events. One day I'll write a book about it all and be as scientifically rigorous as possible. But that day is not today.
**My spell-checker caught this as a non-word which is interesting as all three dictionaries I consulted list it as a verb. Meanwhile, vibin', used in the first paragraph seems to be okay.