The English Pedant – incredible exaggerations

The insidious process of exaggeration is devaluing the very language we speak.

Ever since famous people known as stars were rechristened superstars and then megastars, we’ve been on a slippery slope to a place where nothing is as it seems, or at least as advertised.

This was brought to Winding Road’s attention recently when, during the usual tedious wait to buy some food in a popular international sandwich-making outlet, I was ‘served’ reluctantly and in slow motion be a sullen young woman who obviously thought her job would be a lot better if only they could get rid of the customers.

What brings this girl into the exaggeration category is that, through no fault of her own, she was described on a notice in front of the checkout as a ‘sandwich artist’.

The interestingly contradictory thing about her and millions of young people all over the world is that, while she has a working life of determined drudgery, she and her peers sprinkle their conversation liberally with words like ‘awesome’, to describe events and things of which they approve. Were they ever to come across something that really did inspire awe, how would they describe it?

I fear the appearance of Bill Gates, giving them personally a million US dollars in cash, would provoke the deadpan response, “Yeah, awesome,” because it is the only word of its group that they know. Or possibly “cool”, which started out as a hippy expression before being hijacked by the hoi polloi.

It has been happening for centuries, of course, and is a kind of linguistic inflation. Just as prices rise inexorably to the point where small units of currency can no longer buy anything at all and are eventually abandoned, adjectives are trumped by bigger and more enthusiastic ones until the originals sound almost disapproving. ‘Awesome’ is the latest manifestation in a line that began with ‘good’ and was upgraded to ‘great’, ‘brilliant’ and so on. Perhaps the only difference is that ‘awesome’ is usually delivered in a downbeat way, whereas if you say ‘brilliant’ like that it sounds sarcastic.

This is the sort of thing that puts teachers in an awkward position, because you can’t criticize someone for saying a bag of tortilla chips is “awesome” when, if someone gave you one, you might well say “fantastic” or “wonderful”.

There is a word, eviscerate, which means to disembowel, in other words to cut something or someone open and rip their innards out. Recently it has become quite common for football teams or anyone who has lost a match, debate or business deal to be ‘eviscerated’. Again, though, it is part of a natural process that started with a team being beaten, then hammered, then thrashed, destroyed, crushed or perhaps nuked. And all it means is you lost 4-0. Bayern Munich were eviscerated by Barcelona a few months ago, apparently. A rather bloodless disemboweling, wasn’t it?

Then there is decimate, which has been misused to such an extent that the easily persuaded Online Oxford dictionary now defines it as “Kill, destroy, or remove a large proportion of”. Just look at it, though, and you can see it has something to do with 10 (Latin decimus, meaning tenth, and the decimal system, based on units of 10), and indeed it originally meant “Kill one in every ten of (a group of people, originally a mutinous Roman legion) as a punishment for the whole group”. So it means to reduce 100 to 90, which isn’t really that drastic. Yet it is being used to suggest catastrophic damage.

The trend for exaggeration has also given a new lease of life to words such as ‘incredible’ and ‘amazing’. Even the most experienced and sober of top-level broadcast journalists are now in the habit of describing election victories and losses as “incredibly important” or “unbelievably damaging”, because the old reinforcers such as “very” are now living quietly in a retirement home for redundant vocabulary somewhere on the south coast of England.

What are we going to do when we run out of superlatives? It is hard to imagine that the old rifles will be welcomed back into the ranks in place of the tanks and heat-seeking missiles.

But if there is to be a campaign to tone things down , let’s hope it’s not all-encompassing. Otherwise the women’s underwear currently known as Victoria’s Secret will have to be ‘Something that Victoria has only told one person, and that was her Mum. Oh, and Shereen, but she won’t say anything’.

When I first went to school (no, dinosaurs died out the year before) one of the first things we were taught in English was to avoid using the word ‘nice’ because, even if it gave the general impression that you liked something, it wasn’t descriptive enough. Perhaps those of us who are interested in language should immediately stop anyone who uses ‘awesome’ and ask “What exactly do you mean by that? Do you mean the tomato ketchup is a sauce that takes your breath away and inspires fear and worship?”

We can’t do that, of course. We’d be crazy to, having just spent 20 minutes inching along the counter by the good grace of the girl who could quite easily have gone out the back and pretended she didn’t see us.

She’s an artist, you see. And you know how incredibly temperamental they are.


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