Brilliant in Britain

I watch a lot of British movies and television set in modern times (especially Doctor Who), and I’ve recently noticed that “brilliant” seems to be a favorite adjective in all kinds of contexts.

Originally “brilliant” meant “brightly shining” or “glittering.” Then it was widely used in various metaphorical ways. A dazzlingly intelligent person would be said to have a brilliant mind which produced brilliant ideas. A blindingly lovely young lady could make a brilliant debut at a ball or a musician could make a brilliant debut on the concert stage. Certain bits of cut glass are referred to as “brilliants.” It used to be common to speak of a party or other social occasion featuring spectacular guests as “brilliant.”

But in contemporary UK English the word can mean “outstanding,” “cool,” or simply “okay.” The Oxford English Dictionary traces what it calls the “weakened use” of the word to the early 1970s, where an article in Studies in English noted that speakers might refer to anything admirable or even mildly pleasing as “brilliant.”

Examples from the Web:
This grilled cheese sandwich is brilliant! 
I handed my train ticket to the conductor, and he handed it back and said, “Brilliant”. I thought, “gee, do others not know how to hand a ticket to a conductor?

In the 1980s young UK speakers began to abbreviate the word to “brill.”

It is also used sarcastically to mean “stupid” or even “catastrophic”: 
You poured dog food in your cereal bowl? Brilliant!
You drove the car into the duck pond? Brilliant!
In fact the word has been so overused that it would not be surprising if negative usage were more common than positive.

British “brilliant” in its weakened positive senses means almost the same thing as “awesome” in US English, where the word is almost never used to describe anything truly awe-inducing. 
You want ranch dressing on your salad? Awesome!
An older synonym revived in the UK is “super,” which has the same range of meanings except for the negative one. In the US “super” usually functions as a prefix in slang, as in “super-tired” or “super-excited.”

In an earlier era British “splendid,” which originally meant almost the same thing as “brilliant,” went through a similar weakening to mean merely “acceptable.”

All of this reminds me of another recent usage in both the UK and US which I wrote up on my Web site: “genius” as an adjective.  It is so common among young people that many of them are probably unaware that it is considered slang by older English speakers.

An article in The New York Times in 1995 traced the adjectival use of “genius” to the fashion world. I'd be interested in hearing of any earlier examples.

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