Prior to the turn of the century, the word "stunning" had a potent and particular meaning. If you saw a stunning woman on the street, it meant that you walked into a lamp post while staring at her. If a car had stunning performance, it meant that it was so overwhelming that you nearly lost control. If your sports team had a stunning win, it meant that it was such a heroic piece of athleticism that there was an awed silence when you saw it, before bursting into wild cheers. If something was "stunning", it meant that experiencing it was like being belted across the head with a sturdy piece of wood.
After the turn of the century, however, the word "stunning" has been rapidly downgraded to little more than a synonym of "nice". The blame for this falls pretty squarely on eBay.
On eBay and other online auction sites, anything and everything can be "stunning". A plastic dog. A plate. A sweatshirt that some Midwestern housewife bought at Walmart. Either there are a lot of people traveling through this world being constantly stunned by couch cushions and toasters, or the word has been more violated than Zac Ephron in a supermax prison.
So what the heck does this word mean these days? To further explore this issue, let us examine a collection of objects described by their sellers as "stunning" on gumtree.com.au (the Australian equivalent of Craigslist).
Context: "Stunning Beige & Black French Design Floor RUG"
Commentary: Beige can be stunning? Surely the whole point of beige is that it isn't stunning. Of all the colours in existence, it's the most completely clear-headed and uncontrovertial.
Context: "I have for sale a stunning frangipani 100% hand painted canvas"
Commentary: The rare Stunning Frangipani (hyperbolus boganicus) is native to the lower-class suburbs on the fringes of Australian cities, and is one of the most toxic art-based plants in existence. The aesthetic poison is so potent that it can incapacitate anyone with more good taste than, say, Charmyne Palavi within seconds of exposure. It is to be avoided at all costs, at least by anyone who has ever been within one hundred metres of actual art.
Context: "Stunning 2 piece quality lounge suite"
Commentary: "Stunning" in this context obviously means "featureless, grey and lumpy." By this definition, other "stunning" objects include the contents of your washing machine's lint trap and the surface of the moon.
Context: "I have a stunning Chandelier type light fitting for sale."
Commentary: I would have thought that the danger here wasn't from being stunned so much as putting your eye out. Perhaps it's heavier than it looks. The seller also provides this odd piece of background information:
The only reason I am selling this light is because it is not practical with my 2 year old daughter.
Is this toddler over seven feet tall? Has she eshewed crawling and gone straight for a pogo stick? Is she allergic to halogen? I am in a world of bafflement.
Context: "Stunning muted colours of black, gold, green, pink and floral/bird images."
Commentary: It seems to me that colours can't be both "stunning" and "muted", but maybe I'm being naive. The alternate explanation is that the "stunning" refers to the box's apparent ability to go out of focus on command. Which is pretty impressive, when you think about it.
Context: "Stunning gleaming Black Terrazzo, abstract Dancing Couple."
Commentary: Actually this is a fair use of the word "stunning". I feel woozy and nauseous just from the photograph.