Is 'Delightful' the New 'Cool'?

By Megan Garber
This is one of the first images that appears when you do a Shutterstock search for "delightful." (Shutterstock/Olesia Bilkei)

In July 2012, when Marissa Mayer became the new CEO of Yahoo, she told The New York Times about her plans for the company. "My focus at Google has been to deliver great end-user experiences, to delight and inspire our end users," Mayer explained. "That is what I plan to do at Yahoo: give the end user something valuable and delightful that makes them want to come to Yahoo every day."

"Delight" is a fitting goal for tech firms like Google and Yahoo, whose business models rely on keeping users happy—not just occasionally, but daily and over time. "Twitter’s products influence everything from pop culture to politics, delight our users and change lives," a recent job posting for the company put it. An ad for Facebook's head of global recruiting summed up the role thusly: "Facebook will need a recruiting leader to scale while continuing to delight users, candidates, and customers through hyper growth."

It's not just tech firms, though, that are taking (and talking) delight in the world. Everything, it seems, is delightful right now. Literally. Everything. 

I know this, on the one hand, in the most anecdotal way possible: I've recently found myself using "delightful" pretty much all the time. To describe TV shows. And books. And songs. And children. I've dropped the D-bomb while describing blog posts and cat videos and actors (hello there, Jake Johnson) and one particularly twee pair of holiday socks. Last weekend, I used it to describe pizza. 

I know! Pizza. In my defense, it was really, really good pizza. (It was de-licious, you might say. And de-lovely.)

Another thing in my de-fense? I do not think I am alone in finding at least some of the world to be such a total freaking delight. I think, instead, that there is an epidemic (or, if you prefer, a simple abundance) of the sentiment out there—a veritable garden of earthly "delightfuls." Delight is all over Twitter. It's all over Facebook. It's all over (often, warning, with NSFW connotations) Reddit. It's all over the Internet.

Here are some recent headlines:  

This $40,000 TV Is The New Thing To Ridicule With Delightful Amazon Reviews (Consumerist, December 9, 2013)

Delightful 'Six By Sondheim' Leaves You Wanting Six More (NPR, December 6, 2013)

Watch this delightful video of an 81-year-old Nelson Mandela dancing on stage (Washington Post, December 5, 2013)

29 Utterly Delightful Things You Only Find In Britain (Buzzfeed, December 3, 2013

The delightful paper world of ‘Tearaway’ (The Verge, November 2013)

Wes Anderson Honors Fellini in a Delightful New Short Film (Slate, November 2013)

Breaking Bad on Ice Is Ridiculous and Delightful(Slate, October 2013)

And here are some less-recent ones, from last year: 

Insect Discoveries, Delightful and Disturbing (New York Times)

The Most Delightful—and Little-Noticed—Idea in Bill Clinton’s Speech (Slate)

Kathy Griffin's New Talk Show Is Surprisingly Delightful (Gawker)

Inside the Delightful World of Islamic Terrorist 3D Graphic Design (Gawker)

You get the idea.

Nor, by the way, is "delightful" limited to other media outlets. We here at The Atlantic are fans of it, too. 

Doctor Who's 50th-Anniversary Episode: Delightful, Fan-Servicing Chaos (November 2013)

M.I.A.'s Delightful Middle Finger of an Album (November 2013)

'The Trip': A Delightful Movie About Nothing (2011)

'What Are Clothes?' Asks Most Delightful Supreme Court Argument in History (November 2013, via yours truly)

As a matter of fact, we've been fans of delight since the very first page of our very first issue back in November of 1857, when one English dramatist, Douglas Jerrold, was celebrated thusly by James Russell Lowell:

It will be something to remember in afterlife, that one enjoyed the friendship of so brilliant a man ; and if I can convey to my readers a truer, livelier picture of his genius and person than they have been able to form for themselves hitherto, I shall be delighted to think that I have done my duty to his memory.

This is another image that appears when you do a Shutterstock search for "delightful." (Shutterstock/Maridav)

But the question remains: Why do so many of us delight in "delightful" now? On the one hand, I'd say, it's simply a nice, elegant word: light of tone, buoyant of spirit, semantically supple. It's got that long iiii sound—līt—in the middle of it, which is a structure Joan Didion would surely approve of, and which means, among other things, that you're almost forced to smile as you say it. De-liiiiiight-ful. It's also just lovely and lilty and a little bit childlike, the kind of word you might imagine the Pillsbury Doughboy using, were he capable of speech, to describe his giggle. (Hoohoo!) "Delightful" suggests not just charm, but the best kind of charm there is: the kind that isn't trying to be charming. The kind that takes you, just a little bit, by surprise. 

But there is also something, as those tech-firm marketing messages suggest, very specific and very current and very webby about delightful's appeal. (This despite its age: It was introduced sometime around 1200.)

Because while its usage—in books, at least—has trended downward since its peak in the early 19th century ...

... if you look at just the years after the turn of the 21st, you'll see a fairly sharp uptick. (The data below track instances of "delightful" and, for comparison, "delight" between 2000 and 2008, the most recent years Google charts in its Ngram Viewer.) Presumably—if only anecdotally—that upward trend continues into 2013.

So why the recent resurgence? It likely has to do, at least in part, with the fact that "delightful" now has a decidedly retro affect. Teddy Roosevelt was a fan of it. (He apparently pronounced it "DEE-lightful." Which: delightful.) Emily Dickinson used it, too. So did Thomas Jefferson. And Albert Einstein. And Oscar Wilde. And, obviously, The Sugar Hill Gang. Which makes "delightful"—that quintessentially vintage accessory, the kind you find in a secondhand store—a fitting adjective to describe the products of the Disneyfied, Etsyfied, Thrift Shopified American culture of 2013. A culture that is by turns ironically earnest and earnestly ironic. "Delightful" is the lexographic equivalent of artisanal pickles, or horn-rimmed glasses, or Zooey Deschanel: It seems to be visiting us from another place and another time. Get your "delightfuls" in now, apparently, before Doc gathers them in a DeLorean and whisks them back to 1908, never to be seen again.

FunnyJunk

So ... where does that leave us? Should we double down on "delightful," embracing its twee little charms? Or should we leave it to play itself out, to go the way of boffo and neato and other obsolescent endorsements? 

I should probably, at this point, do the thing that has the best chance of putting me on the right side of history: mount a full-throated attack on "delightful." I should probably take for granted its imminent extinction. As a word, I should point out, it is ridiculously precious. As an adjective, I should continue, it is comically banal. I should give the next section a header that is wry ("Take 'Delightful' ... Please") or inquisitive ("Have We Reached Peak 'Delightful'?") or emotive ("Why the Word 'Delightful' Makes Me Strangely Sad") or aggressive ("Every Time You Call Something 'Delightful,' a Puppy Dies") and then proceed to explain why "delightful" is the worst thing to befall the English language since the coining of the word "moist." 

I should ... but I cannot. Because despite it all, I still find "delightful" ... delightful. It will do where no other will. The social world as it plays out online, after all, can be one of almost reflexive positivity. It's a world often driven by what Buzzfeed's books editor, Isaac Fitzgerald, has called "the Bambi Rule": "If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all." It's a world in which, as Slate's Jacob Silverman put it, "cloying niceness and blind enthusiasm are the dominant sentiments."

There is, of course, nothing wrong with a culture of courtesy. It's delightful! But it creates (among other things) semantic needs among those who are participating in it. In spite of all the new words that have sprung into existence with the advent of new digital technologies—in spite of all the new slang and acronyms and portmantohhhnos we have at our disposal—we still have precious few words to express one of the things we most often find ourselves needing to convey: simple satisfaction. We have "great," sure. We have "good." We have, if we're into that kind of thing, "awesome." We have, if we're getting excited about it, "fascinating." We have, if we are not, "interesting." And we have, still—still!—"cool," the near-universal endorsement that remains, almost in spite of itself, evergreen.

But these adjectival exclamations, useful as they are, are also often unsatisfying: They're generic and occasionally perfunctory, the rhetorical equivalents of Facebook's thumbs-up. They say something, yes, but they don't always mean something. They may take the form of words; they are much more akin, however, to punctuation marks. 

"Delightful" is different. It's a word that explains itself, fully and efficiently. Instead of "This is awesome because X," you get, essentially, "This is delightful because it's delightful." Delight is its own reward. We all recognize this. And when more and more of our interactions find us doubling as curators, filtering Internet for friends and family, positive adjectives are at their best when they can endorse and describe at the same time. "Delightful" is nondescript and nuanced at once. It is retro and modern in equal measure. And therein lies its charm. "Delightful" may well be the new "cool": the adjective we turn to, collectively, to convey our approval. It may well be becoming a more universal validator. It is, as Urban Dictionary explains, "a positive word that could mean anything good." And that's pretty ... well, you know. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/12/is-delightful-the-new-cool/282219/