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Their success is indisputable — but how to describe it? That’s the problem. For language lovers (and that would be most lawyers), words of commendation present a special challenge. It isn’t easy to find the right terminology to describe these up-and-comers, these rising stars, these outstanding lawyers … well, you get the idea. Language suffers from grade inflation. We love our superlatives, so they tend to get diluted from overuse, and sometimes even change meaning entirely. That forces us to devise bigger and better terms for high achievers. Sooner or later, you start sounding like the citizens of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, who proudly declare that, where they live, “every child is above average.” As for the lawyers on the Shortlist, we could safely say they are outstanding — but that word is overused. (Five of the Shortlist finalists were given that accolade in the nominations readers sent in.) That wasn’t always the case. In fact, for many centuries outstanding referred only to an object that protrudes from another object, such as an outstanding gargoyle on a church. In the old days, when people wanted to say something was outstanding (the way we currently use the word, that is), they said it was egregious, a Latin word meaning “to rise above the flock.” And then, for reasons lost to history, people of the Elizabethan era began using the word ironically to mean its opposite, as if to say, “That guy’s totally egregious … not!” By the mid-sixteenth century, egregious had gone from meaning extremely good to extremely bad. But it would not be until the mid-nineteenth century that the word outstanding took on the metaphorical sense of excellence. Evidently, for three long centuries in between, nobody achieved notable success; or if they did, it left people utterly speechless. Gazing skyward often leaves people speechless, too, and here, at least, is a word whose meaning has not changed: star. Since the early nineteenth century, the word has been applied to leading actors and, more recently, rock musicians. In fact, General Electric Co.’s Michael McAlevey, one of the Shortlist nominees, was described by the person who nominated him as being a rock star. The only thing better than being a star is being a rising star, which is a very attractive metaphor, but also an odd one that was used in a couple of the nominations we received. Stars actually rise very slowly. It is only by patient observation, over a period of weeks, that one can detect stars rising in the night sky. And even then, stars never change their relative position vis-�-vis other stars. The term shooting star might seem more apt to describe an ambitious professional. The problem is that shooting stars (meteorites, technically) have very brief careers, burning up in the atmosphere without ever cashing in their 401(k)s. Resorting to a foreign language, we might refer to one of these Shortlist lawyers as a wunderkind, a word that is borrowed from German. The word, however, literally means “wonder child,” which might be enough to deter people from using it. Besides, the ten Shortlisters have an average age of 46. Colloquial English seems better at making the point; it offers many colorful expressions for high achievement at a young age, although they aren’t always complimentary. The prime example is the somewhat begrudging hotshot, a 1920s word that was originally used to describe fast trains before morphing to its current meaning. So let’s coin our own terms for the Shortlist, reviving old words and combining them with the new — such as “egregious wunderkind.” Excessive praise? Perhaps, but then there’s nothing wrong with excess. Nothing exceeds like it.

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