By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Interesting’ is a word that can quickly become boring, if overused or used in a rather vague or lazy way. So what other words are there which mean much the same as interesting, and which might serve as suitable alternatives? Below, we introduce some of the best synonyms – as well as a few handy antonyms – for the word ‘interesting’.
Curiously, the word interesting only took on its modern meaning in the eighteenth century: Laurence Sterne used it in his 1768 book A Sentimental Journey, which provides the OED with its earliest citation: ‘It was a face of about six and twenty … it was not critically handsome, but there was that in it, which … attached me much more to it—it was interesting.’
Synonyms for the word ‘interesting’
CURIOUS can be a viable alternative to interesting. The word can be used of both an interested person (‘I’m curious about your new novel’) and an interesting topic that arouses interest (‘what a curious thing to say – what did he mean?’). When used as a synonym for ‘interesting’, curious often refers to something strange or singular or out-of-the-ordinary: something is curious because it is unusual and therefore of interest.
Much the same meaning is conveyed by the word INTRIGUING, which has been used since the late seventeenth century to mean ‘exciting curiosity or interest’: the OED cites Nahum Tate and John Dryden’s second part of Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel (1682) as their earliest citation: ‘Intriuging [sic] Fopps, dull Jesters and worse Pimps.’ Intrigue is from the same French root word that gives us intricate, meaning involved or complex, and this is fitting because the word intrigue initially denoted trickery or perplexing behaviour.
FASCINATING, meanwhile, comes from the Latin fascināre meaning ‘to cast a spell on’. To fascinate someone is to charm them with something so interesting they are almost hypnotised or spellbound by it. Indeed, in much the same way, we talk about something that’s really CAPTIVATING being SPELLBINDING – giving us two further popular synonyms for the blander adjective ‘interesting’.
STIMULATING is stronger than ‘interesting’, too: it’s from the Latin stimulus, of course, a word that is of dubious origin but which appears to have meant to ‘goad’ in some way. So, to stimulate is to influence or encourage someone in a particular way: to gain their interest.
If something is so interesting or fascinating that it completely compels our attention, it is both COMPELLING and ABSORBING. ENGAGING, AMUSING, ENTERTAINING, and RIVETING all convey similar, if varying, levels of interest in something which captures our attention and holds it.
THOUGHT-PROVOKING simply means ‘prompting serious thought’ (OED), but of course, many things which are intellectually stimulating or interesting may well do just that. ‘Thought-provoking’ is a good compound adjective to use when you wish to give some intellectual or moral weight to the thing being described: for instance, ‘this film is thought-provoking’ or ‘a thought-provoking novel’. It’s especially useful when the novel or film (or whatever) under discussion is about a weighty or serious topic.
And talking of books specifically, if a book is not boring but GRIPPING, we might describe it as UNPUTDOWNABLE, a somewhat arch or playful term for a book that’s so good it is simply impossible to put down and stop reading. This term actually first turned up in 1839, in Lady Lytton’s novel Cheveley, where it referred not to a book but to a particular quality or personality trait that could not be suppressed:
‘Maugh I never eat another dinner if augh don’t dine there too!’ chuckled Peter, with un-put-down-able and un-offend-able gallantry.
The term would continue to be used about people throughout the nineteenth century, and was only first applied to books in 1935. Sadly, the term putdownable for a book that is the opposite has never quite taken off in the same way.
Antonyms for the word ‘interesting’
Let’s start with some of the more obvious and common antonyms for the word ‘interesting’. There’s only one place to begin: BORING. By contrast with interesting, ‘boring’ is a positively fascinating word: its origins are uncertain (it appears not to be related to the sense of ‘bore’ meaning ‘to drill holes into something’, but possibly to be from a French term bourre, meaning ‘padding’, thus denoting something trivial which sates or grates). And it’s surprisingly modern, only first turning up in English in the 1830s, it seems.
TEDIOUS is similarly valuable. This word has been in use since at least the early fifteenth century (the OED’s earliest citation is from the poet John Lydgate, the great follower of Chaucer), and its meaning has remained fairly consistent ever since: it denotes something that is overly long and tiresome – or, if you will, boring. The word is from the Latin meaning ‘to weary’.
DULL, another common synonym for boring, initially meant someone or something slow, sluggish, and uninspired; from that initial meaning came its commoner use, denoting something that causes ennui, something uninteresting or uninspired. The OED’s first recorded use of this sense of ‘dull’ is from Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, where Adriana asks, ‘Are my discourses dull?’ The word is believed to be from an Old English word meaning ‘foolish’, derived from the German toll.
If something is dull or tedious, it might also be described as TIRESOME or WEARISOME: that is, something which tires because it fails to inspire our interest.
So UNINTERESTING is a fairly straightforward (and self-explanatory) antonym for interesting, as is UNEXCITING or UNAMUSING.
And thinking of day-to-day boredom, MONOTONOUS can describe both a dull and repetitive existence and speech of writing which is uninspired and uninspiring. It comes from monotone, so it was originally (in the eighteenth century) used exclusively for sounds, speech, or music.