‘Joyous atheists’: the ultimate oxymoron?

If you are a book reviewer, you sometimes have the slightly hollow feeling that you are ringing the changes in the phrases and adjectives you use. To increase this sense of merely peddling breathless clichés, a friend has kindly sent me a list of adjectives that a reviewer must avoid at all costs.

They are: gripping, poignant, compelling, nuanced, lyrical, tour de force, readable, haunting, deceptively simple, rollicking, fully realised, page-turner, sweeping, riveting, unflinching, powerful, timely and unputdownable.

Well. I plead guilty to having employed the words ‘poignant’, ‘haunting’ and ‘powerful’ – though now that I am conscious of their tainted provenance I do try to find ways of not using them. You would never catch me using the others – unless of course, I were pushed for time, feeling lazy, had stopped bothering about standards or was hoping the reviews editor was asleep.

Two other popular adjectives of recent vintage which I steadfastly avoid are ‘raunchy’ and ‘edgy’. I understand ‘raunchy’ is generally used in the context of elderly women writing explicitly about the pleasures of extra-marital sex – as in the ‘raunchy’ novels of the late (elderly) Mary Wesley. I have never read any of her writings on the grounds that life is short and I suspect I would find them a trifle too ‘raunchy’. I would rather return to Jane Austen (I am re-reading Persuasion at the moment at the behest of my local Book Club) who is exquisitely ‘un-raunchy’.

I never liked the word ‘edgy’ because I saw it thrown about all over the place; then I read the sorry saga of the Jonathan Ross- and-Russell Brand kind of ‘edgy’ humour and the even more sorry spectacle of the BBC defending them on the grounds that the public enjoyed this kind of ‘edgy’ fun – and I sent the word forever to the gulag of my lexicon. (I note that fellow-blogger Stuart Reid used it recently, but I remain unrepentant.)

A word I might use sometime, even though it is also thrown about too often, is ‘feisty’. It seems to be only used about women and has a certain plucky charm to it. Sarah Palin is seriously ‘feisty’ – even if she is not a suitable candidate for the US presidency – so I do not ‘refudiate’ it (to quote a word minted recently by Ms Palin).

I also like the sound of the word ‘apotropaic’, though it is not easy to find a way of using it often; it has an added frisson for me because Christopher Hitchens used it in his Memoir. If only his Twitter fans would imitate their master and touch up their vocabulary.

Just as ‘feisty’ can only be used about women, ‘oleaginous’ can only be used of men. Men ‘greasy’, women ‘plucky’; sounds about right.

To conclude with a phrase: I heard the expression ‘joyous atheists’ the other day and it struck a tinny note against my lexical eardrum. Indeed I refudiate it on the grounds it is an oxymoron. ‘Joyous’ has spiritual connotations and atheists have rejected the life of the spirit. They can of course be ‘happy’ – a word that is much lower in the hierarchy of the emotions.

You can be either ‘joyous’ or an ‘atheist’; you cannot be both. Discuss.