At a recent event, Gayle King threw her weight behind NYC schools chancellor nominee (and former boss) Cathie Black, calling the former Hearst head "scary smart." Fine, but can we get a moratorium on that phrase, please?
Look, of course I realize King meant nothing but a ringing endorsement for Black, who's been criticized for her lack of relevant experience. Her quote in full reads, "She may not have the education experience, but Cathie Black is scary smart...She knows what it takes to run a company. I've worked with Cathie Black, I've seen her in action many times, and I know what she can do." No one but a curmudgeon would belabor the wording or pounce on one commonly-used expression. But as it happens I loathe that particular phrase and this seems as good a time to express this as any. (Sorry, Gayle.)
What is it about "scary" modifying a positive that's so grating? Well, there's the grammatical dissonance of course: a string of adjectives does not a coherent phrase make. But would "frighteningly smart" really be any better? No: because why is intelligence scary? Or intimidating? I guess in some cases it might literally be the case — Sherlock Holmes' brand of intelligence is arguably menacing, especially in the new BBC series, when he's supposed to be a sociopath. I'm sure certain savants are alarming, at least to their parents. But intelligence in itself is not something to fear! We're not medieval peasants cowering before some learned priest, or invoking witchcraft when a woman has too much learning! (Are we?)
My irritation dates back to middle school, when a summer teacher described a fellow student's poetry as "scary good." I was furious: what did that even mean? That it contained sinister magical powers, and risked summoning a demon or something? That it was so good we dare not critique it? Or just that it was somehow beyond our comprehension — or, in a word, intimidating. Ascribing universal fear to anything is a dicey proposition at the best of times: frequently alarmist and generally presumptuous. Allying it with a compliment renders it idiotic, too.
Overreaction, you say? Maybe. But we're not so far from the era of "playing dumb" for maximum feminine appeal (indeed, The Rules is still all about it) so any kind of qualification of intelligence rubs me the wrong way. Even when we mean it as a compliment. (That said, Cathie Black can continue to take this as an unqualified attagirl.)