In his February 6 review of Gold, a new movie, New Yorker critic Anthony Lane says of the actor Matthew McConaughey, “I always reckoned that nothing else could match his refulgent tan, although my theory slumps at the sight of Kenny Wells, McConaughey’s character in Gold, who is pale and sweaty, with a paunch the size of a medicine ball and a hairline that has long since sounded the retreat.”
His refulgent tan? Does that mean ugly?
No, the dictionary says it means “shines very brightly.”
I think the legendary New Yorker editor Harold Ross would have written on the galley, as he liked to do, “What the hell do you mean?”
And along with sending most readers to the dictionary, refulgent sounds ugly, a close relative of repugnant.
Robert E. Wolverton Sr., a classics professor at Mississippi State University, sometimes asks his students to vote on the ugliest words in English. His last list included vomit, putrid, puke, phlegm, snot, scab, and mucus. If his students had ever heard of refulgent, they might have included it.
At the Washingtonian, I often edited out what I thought were ugly words, especially anything to do with bodily functions, avoiding any vomiting, farting, or defecating.
Two years ago, I wrote about a Washington Post book review lede on the front page of the Style section. It was about the novel, The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, that opens with helicopters evacuating the last Americans from Saigon as the war was ending. The reviewer wrote:
“Forty years ago this month, after a long, deadly release of flatulence from American politicians, the United States evacuated its personnel from Saigon in an operation appropriately code-named Frequent Wind.”
I would have killed the lede not only because of the flatulence but also because the end of that war was one of the saddest times in American history and it appeared the writer was joking about it.
I asked Tom Kunkel, author of Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of the New Yorker, if he thought Ross or William Shawn would have allowed that lede in the New Yorker. “No,” he said, “that almost literally smells.”
Another longtime editor didn’t hate the lede as much as I did: “It might have worked if the story subject were light, but the last days in Vietnam were anything but.”
A dissent from a younger editor I worked with who doesn’t remember the Vietnam war so vividly: “This doesn’t bother me so much because of the Frequent Wind joke (and the politeness of the word ‘flatulence’). It’s funny—but I remember your distaste for such words.”
Professor Wolverton’s beautiful words included love, eloquent, faith, serendipity, epiphany, lullaby, beauty, and grace.