Mark Lamster | Essays

F*ck Elegant

Friends: A scourge has beset our culture, and something must be done. It may seem innocuous at first, but in truth it is an insidious force, eating away at the very foundation of all we hold dear. Even I have fallen victim to its powers of seduction. Ladies and gentleman, I refer to the ceaselessly expanding use of the term elegant. We must stop. 

The purpose of language is to convey meaning, but at this point elegant has become the most empty of signifiers. The problem may be attributed to overuse. Google elegant and you come up with 457 million results. The universe is elegant, but so is a toilet, a canoe, a dog collar, and every plastic surgery victim on reality tv. And then there's elegant's idiot bastard child, casual elegance, the very definition of an oxymoron, but one with increasing relevance as our culture becomes ever more lax, but ever more obsessed with consumption and wealth. It is not surprising that elegant has become a defining word of our era of 1 percenters.

We use elegant because it suggests, with comfortable vagueness, a variety of cultural values that we broadly admire and aspire to: prestige, luxury, comfort, affluence, intelligence, grace, beauty. These are all abstractions, and therefore pose serious challenges to writers, especially those in cultural disciplines. It's hard to explain why a new chair or building or idea is especially noteworthy or important or valuable, and so perhaps unconsciously we resort to the lazy catchall, expecting it will do the work for us. That's not good enough. 

Unless you're reporting on an evening with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers at the Rainbow Room, a highly unlikely scenario, you really have little continued justification for the use of the term elegant. So please stop doing so. We can all do better. Thanks. 

Comments [6]

Do you realize that you are not referring to the correct definition of elegance? Usually when referring to design, this definition is used:

(From Mathematics) Combining simplicity, power, and a certain ineffable grace of design. Higher praise than "clever", "winning" or even cuspy.

(Source: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/elegant?r=75&src=ref&ch=dic )

loss of meaning=brutalist, starch i tect, elegant?

Rainbow Room, now that was elegant, Fred and Ginger, real or imagined

I agree that certain words are lazily being overused. If I hear 'amazing' for something that is puerile one more time I'll blow a fuse! Our language has got bombastic in the wrong context.

This is great, Mark. I suddenly realize that my personal least-favorite use of the word is in the phrase "elegant solution," most often to describe some element of interaction design. Anyway I think you're right on point here, so thanks.
Rob Walker

@thejaw *like

touche en garde' elegant.

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