KAMLOOPS — In anticipation of the new year, I will get my almost-annual rant about how we abuse the English language off my chest. This time, my gripe is with our impulse to make everything more than it is.
It would not be an exaggeration to say we live in an age of exaggeration. We like to blame politicians for exaggerating but I’m not so sure they don’t take their cues from us, the masses.
Let’s get a couple of the obvious ones out of the way first. The use of “literally,” for example. It’s currently the most misused word in our language.
If I was to say, “The constant misuse of the word ‘literally’ is literally driving me insane,” it would mean it was actually driving me nuts, as in send for the folks in white coats and take me away.
Nowadays, though, it’s used simply for emphasis. Such as, “It literally killed me!” Well, if it literally killed you, you wouldn’t be around to say so. It’s possible that you “literally had a heart attack” but if you did you should be in hospital. A word that means a point is not being exaggerated, is now used for the very purpose of exaggerating.
Still in everyday use, “thank you so much” has supplanted “thank you.” The latter, apparently, isn’t sufficient. There’s no difference between saying “thank you” and “thank you so much,” but adding “so much” is an exaggerated way of sounding sincere. (By the way, if I’d just written “more sincere” what would that have meant? We are either sincere or not.)
One hundred per cent, of course, isn’t enough. It’s got to be “110 per cent.”
Listen when someone is describing the size of something. Ever hear them called it “little” or “big”? No, it must be a “tiny little” something or a “huge big” something. Even when we don’t duplicate words, we find it necessary to describe things in the most extreme range we can think of — it’s got to be the tallest (not just very tall), the shortest, the best or the worst (“the absolute worst day I ever had!”).
If something is really good, it’s “world class.” If we want to show something off, we must “showcase” it.
Nothing is simple. Asked a yes or no question, we respond with “absolutely,” or “absolutely not.”
People aren’t naked, they’re “stark naked.” They aren’t crazy, they’re “stark raving mad.”
Our City councils no longer have full discussions. They have “fulsome reviews.” They’re the same thing, but “fulsome” is a fine-sounding word. And if we say it will be a “robust” policy instead of just a regular one, well, that makes it sound as if we’re really doing our job.
We struggle to describe events. Instead of using words for sounds and actions to explain, we compare incidents and scenarios to one other. The devastation left by a hurricane is “like a war zone.” The devastation in a war zone is “like a hurricane.”
(And, by the way, there’s no such thing as “irregardless.” It’s “regardless.” Lengthening words doesn’t help.)
We talk about “several different things.” If there are several, can’t we assume they’re separate from one another?
We make fun of the current U.S president and his Trumpisms, but he’s merely the epitome — or even the product — of the exaggeration-prone world we live in, not its inventor.
Maybe normal descriptive language no longer does justice to our daily high-stress trials and tribulations. Everything has become bigger than life. Or maybe we’ve just developed the urge to make it seem that way. The alternative is boring old normalcy. So, we’ve all become drama queens and kings.
Problem is, exaggeration loses its effect in the long-run. We — if you’ll excuse the term — over-exaggerate. Before we know it, “spectacular” is every-day. Instead of meaning something is awe-inspiring, “awesome” now just means we like it.
It all becomes white noise. Donald Trump brags that “I have the best words” and that “It’s gonna be huge” (Justin Trudeau’s favourite word, on the other hand, is “uh”) but we’ve stopped listening to him.
Just like we’ve stopped listening to each other.