“Stunning but nondescript.”

That’s how, fifteen years ago, Aina summed up several hours of Icelandic scenery along the road from Reykjavík to Akureyri: incessant mountains and dales and hills and valleys and nary a tree in sight, every bit of it scraped from the primeval earth by the palette knife of a beardless flat-haired Bob Ross. For the first hour or two you are in awe. Eventually you are still in awe but also in “aw, come on.” It is all breathtaking but there is nothing that makes any particular bit of it stand out. It is not really descript.

Yes, there is a word descript. We don’t use it much now, but we have had it at least since the 1700s. It first referred to things that had already been described (as in biological field documentation), and from that it came to refer to things that can be described. Things that have salient characteristics, things that stand out from the rest. In describing the Icelandic scenery, I have – in at least one sense – made it descript.

Good wines are descript, often lavishly descript, sometimes a bit unnervingly so. Many popular wines, on the other hand, taste quite a lot like one another. (Pour me a Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, and I will be shocked if it deviates in any really noticeable way from what I expect. This goes triple for icewine, which is both elixir of the gods and syrup of the pancakes.) Truly bad wines, on the other hand, are also often quite descript, though not with the same words.

The same holds for other beverages too: there are many thirst-quenching lagers that could not be distinguished in a taste test (especially at the rate most people drink them) – which is not to say they’re not drinkable, oh yes they are, that’s the point – while there are some very descript beers that are spiky, funky, florid, caramelly, or any of quite a few other qualities that you may love or hate with equal probability. You may find most tequilas to have about the same flavour, the pastel cactus green of liquor tastes, especially if you strangle them with salt and lime, but once you get into mezcal you quickly discover that some are a little smoky and some are apparently filtered through the dumpsters at medical waste incineration facilities. Descript means describable, but it doesn’t necessarily mean describable in positive terms.

It also doesn’t necessarily mean describable in literal terms. If you asked me to describe someone’s face, I probably couldn’t tell you enough to picture them. But if their appearance was striking to me, I could tell you what it felt like to look at them. I might say that someone’s resting facial expression suggests that they could light you on fire and then have a deep and interesting discussion of anything with you while you burned, and at the end you would be a grateful cone of ashes but would also realize you didn’t know anything more about them than when you first saw them. This might not give you the same physiognomic picture as I would have in my mind, but you would probably recognize them when you met them. They would be descript because described and describable.

All of which also means that the descriptness of a thing or person depends on the descriptive abilities of the observer. Many things are nondescript to the inattentive or inarticulate; few things are nondescript to those whose minds have a million tiny fingers to feel the textures of all things and write rhapsodies about them. One person writes “It’s a nondescript roadside village”; another writes “It’s a spillage of dusty houses with a gas station and a legion branch.”

Which is not to say that “nondescript” is always a failure of eyes and tongue. A good description need not be elaborate – indeed, it may suffer from being drawn out. Sometimes a simple unexpected juxtaposition serves the turn perfectly, even if ironically: “stunning but nondescript” identifies the detail that makes it descript – it is distinguished by its lack of distinguishing character.

2 responses to “descript

  1. Quite an interesting post! You drew me and kept me reading. Fun! Thanks!

  2. At work once I was telling a coworker who she should talk to in HR. I told her that she needs to speak to the woman who looks like she hasn’t had a bowel movement in 10 years, but to please not hold that against her or take her facial expression personally.

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