Today’s rant is dedicated to the wanton overuse of the word passionate in the United States.
Growing up with my nose in books, I usually only encountered the word passionate in connection with infatuation, love-making (in the mostly verbal, Jane Austen sort of way) or, in J.K. Rowling’s terms, “a cauldron full of hot, strong love.” Its meaning as I took it was along the lines of overwhelming, powerful, or keenly felt admiration or attachment.
In college, I came to understand that the root of passionate, i.e. passion, is connected to the word pain. (In this context, the John Cougar Mellencamp song about love entitled “Hurts So Good” makes sense.) This explains its use in describing the lengthy, blow-by-blow account of the unhappy demise of a Jewish boy in Greek Scripture, as well as J.S. Bach’s musical dramatizations (according to Matthew and John) of same.
Love and death. These are stirring, existential issues for the human race. So imagine my revulsion when hearing the word passionate applied to college students for their major subjects, people endeavoring to start businesses, and basements. Yes, I said basements. A company whose line of business was finishing and prettifying basements advertised frequently on one of the Boston radio stations, and in their ads, a man with a broad New England accent plugged his company saying, “We’re passionate about basements, and we luv helpin’ people.”
Perhaps they are experts at finishing basements. Perhaps they will take on the challenge of making habitable even the dankest, moldiest basement. And I have no doubt that they take pleasure in improving the quality of life of their clients. But to say that they are passionate about basements suggests to me that they not only clean up, enclose, carpet, and tastefully finish basements, but that they whisper sweet nothings, read Byron, or sing Neopolitan love songs as they are doing so. Or worse, that having completed a particularly nasty job, they crucify themselves on the beadboard wainscoting.
The NI2 defines passionate as follows:
1. Capable or susceptible of passion, or of different passions; easily moved, excited, or agitated: specif., easily moved to anger; irascible; quick-tempered; characterized by anger; angry.
2. Affected with, or characterized by, passion, or strong or intense emotion; expressing passion; ardent in feeling or desire; enthusiastic; impassioned; vehement.
3. Specif., affected with, or under the influence or control of, the passion of love.
The following is the AH’s definition:
1. Capable of or having intense feelings; excitable.
2. Wrathful by temperament; choleric.
3. Amorous; lustful.
4. Showing or expressing strong emotion; ardent.
5. Arising from or marked by passion.
One can picture enthusiasm (part of the NI2’s definition) driving someone to start a business, or an English major having an ardent admiration for Wordsworth’s poetry. But no, fellow anglophiles, one may not claim to be passionate about fixing up basements. A statement of that nature ventures into gross hyperbole. Let us save passionate for Cathy and Heathcliff, Tristan and Isolde, and Heloise and Abelard. And, perhaps, that nice but wayward Jewish boy who should have stayed in yeshiva.