Monday, January 05, 2009

Superlatives and Expletives

We live in a world where information overload is commonplace, and at any given time there seem to be a million different things vying for our attention. So it's no surprise that everyone and everything is looking to shock, to entice, or to stand out in some way.

One of the results of this is a coarsening of our language, and an exhaustion of available descriptions for things which vary in degree. We love people, food, and TV shows. We hate politicians, bad drivers, and the devil. The current financial recession is the most desperate and disastrous event since the Great Depression. The current weather is the most severe ever, and further evidence that the global climate is well on its way to impending doom and disaster. Many people have a new and different "best friend forever" monthly, and "the worst day ever" almost daily.

As part of this same process, the boundaries of what is considered acceptable and polite speech, particularly in terms of obscenity and vulgarity, are also being stretched. When I was 15 years old, I distinctly remember immersing myself in flagrant and gratuitous use of extremely vulgar language. I was surrounded by friends who also spoke that way, and we all agreed that it made us sound pretty grown up and avant-garde. It was a great way to rebel against our parents, and against society at large. No word, regardless of how hateful or hurtful, was off limits. The more offensive, the better. Now it seems that society at large is striking back, by pelting me daily with the vocabulary of a 15 year old. Touché.

What this all means is that things which cannot be characterized in extreme terms are anathema, and should be avoided. They are boring and meaningless. They are routine and predictable. They are mediocre and unnoticeable. They are bland and tasteless. They are plain and ordinary.

When we want to express that something is truly spectacular, amazing, magnificent, or wonderful, we lack the effective vocabulary to do it because we've used up those words on things which simply didn't deserve them. When we want to express that something is truly abhorrent, horrible, awful, or revolting, again we lack the vocabulary because we've used up those words on things we oughtn't have.

I really don't think there's anything that can be done to reverse the trend at this point. It seems that it's in our nature to become desensitized to anything to which we are repeatedly exposed, including the power of words. I wonder if there will come a point where we will have gone so far down this path that it will strike someone as novel and compelling to rebel against society by discovering "the old way", and unearthing the shocking richness of the language that was left behind long ago.


  1. I love reading explorer's books and journals. Especially those of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, where there was an unspoken creed to make the accounts (a) as understated as possible, no matter how dire the straits, and (b) funny, but only if you were parsing the words closely and paying attention. I have laughed out loud reading John Wesley Powell, Shipton & Tilman, Twain (of course) and others, on sentences most people would just skim over without getting it.

    Especially the Brits, who had this mastery of the triple negative in the passive voice. Often when reading Tilman I will burst out with a guffaw a full paragraph or more after reading a little wit-bomb wrapped up in convoluted, wry language half a page above that then goes off with a time-delay because my subconscious finally unwraps it a while after my conscious intellect has raced on.

    May we return to that...delicacy at some time in the future. Say, have you read "The Diamond Age"?

  2. What an amazing marvelous fantastic post! Okay I couldn't resist, but you do make a good point.

  3. Jim - I was recently thinking about picking up some Mark Twain -- it's been many years since I've read any. I have not read "The Diamond Age".

    Amy - OMG! Best. Comment. Evar! ;-)