I hold in my hand the names of 205 credit-card-carrying members of the human race who’ve been described by a word that’s fast becoming as irritating as superstar, glitz, or life-style. The word is genius, and it’s time we recognized, with all Churchillian gravity, that from Stettin in the Baltic to the psychobabble retreats in Marin County, people are being called geniuses at a rate that should make us all want to pull down an iron curtain.

This sinister state of affairs was recently brought home by tributes to two public figures previously suspected of talent, to say nothing of genius: (1) Curly of Three Stooges fame, and (2) Andy Warhol, the recently deceased pop artist. That the first of these was the real article, however, I have on the authority of Steve Allen. Narrating a Three Stooges PBS documentary, Allen unblinkingly pinned the genius tag on Curly, offering in evidence a film clip in which the baldish comedian, alternately harassed and humored by a judge and a bailiff, attempts to raise his right hand, swear on a Bible, remove his derby, and hold onto his cane. Curly brought to his befuddlement neither the pathos of Chaplin nor the wit of Fields—although he is unquestionably likable, decent, and competent.

Mr. Warhol’s genius, meanwhile, was asserted with casual authority by the New York Times: “The combination of his genius and [his followers’] energy produced dozens of notorious events throughout his career.” Genius? Campbell soup cans, Brillo boxes, a movie called Eat in which the artist Robert Indiana takes 45 minutes to consume a mushroom? Notorious events, unquestionably. But genius?

Perhaps, like me, the reader is sufficiently antique to recall a time when genius was normally reserved for that rare soul who, in Dr. Johnson’s phrase, “can do readily what no one else can do at all”—people on the order of Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Bach, Newton, Tolstoy, and Einstein; people, in short, possessing what the dictionary defines as “transcendent intellectual or creative power.” The tribe has never been numerous—to hear the term applied not only to the Curlys and Andy Warhols but to professional football coaches. Method Acting instructors, advertising copywriters, fashion designers, hairdressers, et al., makes me long for the days when transcendent intellectual or creative power wasn’t thought of as a civil right. Even the limited humility of Mr. Noel Coward comes to mind: “I believe that since my life began / The most I’ve had is just a talent to amuse,” he said. “Talent,” not “genius.”

To be sure, genius is only the latest victim of our inflated verbal economy, in which the hypester has replaced the hipster as our chief minter of language. “Super” is a term now used so extensively that it has all the force of “passable” or “OK.” “Superstar” has replaced “star” (a term good enough for Jesse Owens and Joan Crawford but apparently not for Carl Lewis and Jane Fonda) and is even now giving way to “megastar.” “Existential” has never meant precisely anything, but is now used to mean “heroically exciting in a dull, philosophic way”—as in “the existential dramas of Lina Wertmüller.” And “excellence” has now become the solemn rallying cry of at least 5,000 advertising clients, eager to describe their mediocrity, as in the U.S. Post Office claim “We deliver excellence for less.”

Perhaps saddest of all is what has happened to “Renaissance man.” Time was, the term described someone like Thomas Jefferson, of whom a biographer wrote: “a gentleman of thirty-two who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dance a minuet, and play the violin.” Today a Renaissance man is anyone who can spell, fill out a tax form, and tell the difference between Chateauneuf de Pape and Ripple. To keep a useful word like genius, then, from further degeneration, let me offer some suggestions that may possess, if not excellence, at least utility. After all, better to light a candle than curse the megadarkness:

First, don’t refer to any of your family or friends as a genius. It’ll only make them suspicious, and besides, most of us have never seen a genius, let alone sat across from one. If any of your friends insist they’ve seen a genius, make them produce evidence of their subject’s ability to do unusual things with Campbell soup cans and Brillo boxes.

Second, before you describe your favorite cosmetics-industry novelist or nightclub comedian as a genius, ask if perhaps he or she couldn’t better be described as a qualified genius, a genius with an adjective. Charles Dickens, for example, while he may lack the stature of a genius pure and simple, can quite legitimately be called a “comic genius.” So, for that matter, can Charlie Chaplin. Your nightclub comedian, however, probably can’t. Be careful.

Third, if you should happen across a legitimate Renaissance man, don’t complicate his life by calling him a genius. Jefferson, William Morris, and the Major Robert Gregory so beautifully praised in Yeats’s famous poem would each better be described as “a man of genius”—someone possessing an extraordinary range of powers but not so overwhelmingly gifted in any one department as to tower above the field. In any case, your chances of meeting an authentic Renaissance man are probably about the same as your chances of running into Judge Crater in a shopping mall.

Finally, if you’re one of those people whose mental metabolism requires them to say “genius” at least several times a week, try using it in such modest possessive constructions as the following, where it’ll immediately be clear you’re not employing the term in any serious sense: “France has a genius for making tourists feel welcome”; “Shirley MacLaine has a genius for simplifying complex international relationships”; “Ronald Reagan has a genius for controlling subordinates.”

Several years ago, as I was taking in the excellence of litter that fills the streets in the city of Supermayor Ed Koch, my eye was suddenly caught by a New York Post scarehead proclaiming Polish beauty seized at United Nations. Apart from the ambiguity of the verb—had she been crudely grabbed by some macho passerby? kidnapped? arrested?—I was curious to have a look at this Slavic Venus and quickly plunked down my 35 cents. Those who recall Maria Ouspenskaya as the elderly gypsy in the old “Wolf Man” movies can perhaps best appreciate my disappointment when I flipped to the picture inside, for though the Polish “beauty” was somewhat younger than Miss Ouspenskaya, her aesthetic impact was roughly the same. Even if she was no beauty, though, she might well be a genius.