Service of a Word

February 5th, 2024

Categories: Critique, Cute, Sensitivity, Words

I’ve written 27 other posts in the “word” category in 16 years. Forgive me if I already ranted about this one way back when.

It came up again the other day when a friend who owns a jewel box like antique shop in New England almost moaned as she told me that a recent visitor entered and said about her boutique, “How cute.” Why not say “charming,” or “delightful,” or “attractive?”

I think cute is almost insulting when used for anything other than a little child or pet, their clothing, photos, hairstyle and toys. I have a vintage Teddy bear. Some might call him “cute.” I think he’s handsome. But he wouldn’t mind the cute word given his origins as a toy.

I once owned a landscape in oil painted by the daughter of my mother’s friend. Its vibrant colors and composition drew me in and every time I passed it, I enjoyed the scene. When a guest—the boss of my then husband—pronounced it “cute,” I smiled, thanked and cringed quietly. He had good intentions and wanted to be nice. It may have been many things but cute wasn’t one. This happened decades ago but when I hear “cute,” I think of that exchange and my sinking heart.

No doubt 98 percent of the English-speaking world has no negative feelings about the word cute, or why it would rile anyone. I suspect that words matter little to most who are oblivious to their potential impact when uttered without malice or anger during benign conversation. Am I too sensitive about words spoken by well-meaning people?

11 Responses to “Service of a Word”

  1. Linda Levi Said:

    Linda on Facebook: At the risk of offending you, certainly not my intention, the answer to question you pose, in my humble opinion is resoundingly yes. Chill, relax, YOLO. No friend hopefully would be intentionally rude to you, in a conversation or otherwise.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Linda:

    I wrote the post because my friend who owns the New England antique shop, was appalled when a woman came into her boutique, uttering those words, and since I agreed with her, I felt it was worthy of an airing.
    Nobody means harm, but that doesn’t mean that words don’t cause negative reactions in some.

  3. Linda Levi Said:

    Linda on Facebook: Sadly sometimes mean-spirited people do mean harm with their words, but when offering a compliment, like “cute shop,” I don’t think that’s the intent nor should one should take offense.

  4. TC Said:

    WELL, FOR ME CUTE DESCRIBES SOMETHING LOVEABLE ABOUT KITTENS AND PUPPIES. BUT, WITH HUMANS, IT SUGGESTS SOMETHING LESS THAN BEAUTIFUL AND HANDSOME—BUT NOT UGLY OR UNATTRACTIVE. SO, NOT SURPRISINGLY, IT HAS A DOUBLE ENTENDRE WITH THOSE AMONG US WHO ARE SENSITIVE TO IT.

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:

    TC,

    You are the calming voice of reason.

    I hope there may be words that bother others and not me.

  6. Lucrezia Said:

    Words change in meaning and in popularity over the years. I see cute as a bland word. It’s not offensive — merely boring. However, should it fit in well with what I’m trying to say, I won’t hesitate to use it. That goes for any word in any language!

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucrezia,

    Cute has more power to me that has lasted decades than a lazy, bland word like “nice.” But bland is better sometimes.

  8. Deb Wright Said:

    No, I don’t think you are being too sensitive. I remember showing my new house in 1980 to a good friend who said , “well ,it certainly is a fixer-upper!” Obviously, it was meant as a casual comment, but it still rankles! Another instance is showing a pen and ink drawing that I did and it was quite elaborate. It took a long time to complete. My neighbor gave it a glance and said “cute.” Really? I do think we need to think about words and language that is appropriate and doesn’t marginalize what we are sharing.

  9. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Deb,

    You said it–the word “cute” used in the wrong context marginalizes the subject of the comment. Perfectly expressed.

  10. Martha Takyama Said:

    I understand your feelings about the (mis)use of “cute” in English but do think that there are much worse things that can and are said all the time! I know cute can be used in a dismissive or arrogant fashion. However, as my Japanese husband and many Japanese friends often explained to me. the Japanese word for cute,”kawai” (even said in Japanese/English) is something positive and desirable although not always in synch with western of American taste or values.

    Thoughtlessness whether in language or deed can be very painful. Cultivation. of tact and sensitivity are things to be nourished!

  11. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Martha,

    You are so right. I used to separate myself from a woman with whom I’d drive to craft fairs because she would remark, in the loudest voice, how ugly or poorly made or dreadful or easy to create the work was in the booth we’d be standing in. I’d want to crawl away.

    I’m sure that most who use the cute word have nothing mean in mind. It’s just a thing with me.

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