Patrick Taylor

Gratuitous exaggeration

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


I had 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 saying "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 and 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 that are 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 very last drop, milking things for all they are worth, 'maximising' opportunities for something or another, is all part of it. In the media especially. Competition for attention means exaggeration. Moderation of language, shades of emphasis, subtlety and nuance are out, ultimisation is in. It costs nothing; that's what I mean by gratuitous.

Anyway, Lent is over and I can go back to saying "absolutely incredible" to describe something odd. 'Odd' would be the sort of understatement my old boss might have made when he said my work was encouraging or most satisfactory. But that was the 1980s. Today—no exaggeration—he'd say fantastic, stunning, simply phenomenal!

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Page last modified: 31 March, 2023