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Superlatives!

It’s become a staple of The Daily Show lately.  A Democratic Congressman works down the list of talking points by Republicans on the Health Care bill and compares it to the “Big Lie” of Joseph Göbbels and the Nazis.  Jon Stewart pokes at the hyperbole, saying, “You don’t have to go there.  There’s already a perfectly good word for liars … liars”.  But this is far from the only example of excessive use of superlatives.

It’s become a total epidemic that threatens to end life as we know it!

Media in general is marked by desperate cries for attention and a strange belief that venting is good for … I dunno what it’s supposed to be good for.  Comparing people to Hitler has become so cliché that it hardly has any punch at all.  I like to point out that he was a vegetarian and tell vegans that they are “just like Hitler”.  Then again, you know people who wanted to be artists but didn’t have the talent to pursue it as a career and became bitter husks who take out their frustration on the world … they are soooo like Hitler.

Yet this is so much more than casual Nazi refs.  The word “awesome” is used to comment on blogs and describe situations that hardly seem to merit “awe”.  It makes me think of the long story of this word and the one it had to replace, “awful”, a word that took a strange trip to the darkside and actually completely flipped in meaning.  Is “awesome” on a trip just like “awful”, moving from a useful word to a mundane one first?

There are many others, of course.  “Incredible” is a favorite because it means, at its heart, “not credible”.  I see many “not credible” stories every day and have to wonder if this word should someday flip as well.  Products are called “revolutionary” simply because they are kewl ways to eat up free time or get your bathroom very clean without struggle – how does that compare with a real revolution like they may be having in Egypt?  “I don’t know if Mubarak will brutally suppress his own people, but I can tell you that I can play Angry Birds nearly anywhere!”

It gets fun when casual superlatives lead to even more breathless terms that have to top them the next time the situation comes around.  Often, these have to be made up.  Terms like “Snowmageddon” and “Snowpocalypse” last year left us with almost no way to describe the brutal Winter we’re stuck in now.  Was there a Snowrapture that we missed and we’re all Snowleftbehind?

The most natural response to this if you’re looking for real comedy in your life (and who isn’t these days?) is to take it to the dark side.  It’s called “litotes”, or the active understatement.  It can be an art form here in the Midwest where the word “different” is often used to express complete disgust.  The more common form is the double negative, but that is not unsubtle enough for the truly skilled.  Dusting off this device might be the only antidote for those of us not awestruck by the excessive use of superlatives.

There are many other examples, and I’d love to hear what you have to add.  In the middle of a Winter that has seen five feet of snow (!) with February and March yet to come this is as good of a time as any to think about what really deserves superlatives in our world.  If only we could somehow blame it all on Nazis running around everywhere we might even be able to make it into some kind of political movement …

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16 thoughts on “Superlatives!

  1. How often have I heard people say something ‘makes me barf’ or makes me gag’. That one is way over used as well.

  2. Enjoyed this post! Unfortunately I am fresh out of witty banter today so I can’t contribute any more examples, but will follow this post to see what others say 🙂

  3. This may not be the same thing but people use the word “literally” for emphasis in a way that makes no sense at all. For example, saying someone “literally exploded” when they didn’t really explode. Its kind of like a superlative because they are adding emphasis where it doesn’t belong.

    But what are you a language nazi? 🙂

  4. I think you wrote about this before, but what about “ripped”, “shredded” and other terms used to describe insults on the web?

  5. Anna: I thought I did, too, but I can’t find it. Maybe later when I have more time to look. That is a good example I thought of to include here!

    Dale: That one is plain silly! I think it counts.

    Janine: Yes, that also doesn’t make any sense. Why not say you were disappointed or upset rather than go for the physical routine?

    Good examples, thanks!

  6. I was going to include this in the text, but it was a bit too heavy. So I’ll put it in the comments as a footnote – why superlatives are a problem:

    Your Daily Dose of Tao – Tao Te Ching Chapter 2, translated by Derek Lin
    http://www.taoism.net/ttc/complete.htm

    When the world knows beauty as beauty, ugliness arises
    When it knows good as good, evil arises
    Thus being and non-being produce each other
    Difficult and easy bring about each other
    Long and short reveal each other
    High and low support each other
    Music and voice harmonize each other
    Front and back follow each other
    Therefore the sages:
    Manage the work of detached actions
    Conduct the teaching of no words
    They work with myriad things but do not control
    They create but do not possess
    They act but do not presume
    They succeed but do not dwell on success.
    It is because they do not dwell on success
    That it never goes away

  7. I think what it comes down to is that everyone thinks what they do is very important and everything else in the world isn’t.

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