Word of the Week! Fatuous

Homer Simpson drops Bart into bottomless pitWe live in an era of fatuous public speech. The OED defines our word as “foolish, vacantly silly, stupid.” That’s about, what? 90% of social-media content and 95% of commentary on YouTube videos, site-formerly-known-as Twitter, and other cesspools of the utopia that never happened online.

Looking for images, I found one of Bart Simpson mooning the viewer. That’s not fatuous. It’s vulgar. I’m not offended by cartoon buttocks, but such silliness goes past mere stupidity. What about that avatar of poor taste, Homer Simpson, dropping Bart into a bottomless pit? Now that’s fatuous in any modern sense of the word. Plus it made me laugh.

Perhaps I’m being fatuous in an older sense provided by the OED, “vapid” or “tasteless,”: from Latin fatuus plus an English suffix, we have a descriptor for so much speech and writing today.

I got interested the word from an exemplar of good taste and carefully crafted prose, novelist Edith Wharton. Over the holiday I began reading R.W.B. Lewis’ biography of her, where I met a few words I plan to feature here, including “insipid,” given as a synonym for this week’s word, as well as a metaphor Wharton used as title for a juvenile novel she penned, Fast and Loose.

Without playing fast and loose with facts, I can now claim that Wharton’s letters to her friends, mostly male and all well educated writers, artists, diplomats, and bon vivants, were never fatuous. To read through the missives of a more literate and more publicly polite time (at least among Wharton’s peerage, such as writers Henry James and Henry Adams) provides an excellent tonic from reading grumpy, fatuous, even frightening remarks in onine public forums today.

I’d go on to claim being online really is not  fully “life” at all, but that remains another topic,  not a fatuous one, either. I know, you are reading this online so another Simpson’s reference springs to mind.

Old Man Yell at cloud

If you have a word or metaphor you enjoy, send them by yelling at me on campus, e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu), or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.