Gratuitous Exaggeration

Posted May 11th, 2014

"What are you giving up for Lent?" they asked.


I'd decided to give up saying "absolutely" when I only mean "yes" ('only mean' should really be 'mean only' but that's another story). I should perhaps have given up 'absolutely' altogether because the word superfluously emphasises something already absolute, like, for example, 'silent'. Absolutely silent is the same as silent.

Obviously I don't object to something being emphasised. Really quiet is quieter than quiet, which is meaningful because quietness is not absolute - almost silent for example. 'Absolutely quiet' is just the same as silent but you never hear that; people seem to prefer a double absolute: absolutely silent. That's what I mean by exaggeration.

'Absolutely' is just one of lots of words losing their meaning: great, incredible, unbelievable, amazing, awesome, brilliant, epic, crazy, unprecedented, surreal are sprinkled around in the context of things only slightly out of the ordinary. Does anyone know the meaning of 'surreal'? I like how the online Urban Dictionary describes 'awesome' as a sticking plaster word used by Americans to cover over the huge gaps in their vocabulary, but I think it's more than that. It's laziness, and more annoying still: the tendency to go to the absolute limit as if one's personal experience of the world is unsurpassed by anyone else's. Your awesome lunch, the one you ate that you say fills you with awe. Sushi was it? Washed down with the most unbelievable coffee? Our cat eats soil. It's so surreal.

Squeezing out the last drop, milking events for all they are worth, 'maximising' opportunities for something or another, is part of the same phenomenon. In the media I mean. Competition for attention means exaggeration. Moderation of language, shades of emphasis, subtlety and nuance are out, ultimisation is in. It costs nothing, which is what I mean by gratuitous.

Anyway, Lent is over so I can go back to saying 'absolutely incredible' to describe something odd. 'Odd' would be the sort of understatement my old boss used to like when he said my work was encouraging or most satisfactory. But that was the 80's. Today—no exaggeration—he'd say fantastic, stunning, simply phenomenal!

Page last modified: October 03, 2018


Absolutely fun piece, this.
It made me think.
Now, where did I put the remote control?

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Patrick Elsewhere

The art of Françoise Taylor:
paintings & drawings by my mother, vécue 1920-2007