linguistics and lexicography Love English

Is linguistic inflation insanely awesome?

To continue the semantic theme of my last post, today I want to look at inflation. Linguistic inflation is analogous to economic inflation, but it concerns a devaluation in meaning rather than price.

Inflation lies behind the popular use of such words as genius, epic, awesome, totally, and incredible. What they mean is often more modest than their traditional senses suggest: genius means clever, epic is impressive, incredible is surprising. Such is our need to imbue our words with force and significance, that we use hyperbole to entice people to pay attention – and the hyperbolic terms gradually normalise.



Say we’re sharing a link on the internet. Can we trust people to heed us if we say it’s “pretty good” or “rather interesting”? These intensifiers, which Orin examined last week, will seem mild in the midst of phrases like “insanely amazing” (which Google tells me has been applied to hair extensions and cheese dip recipes). So more people begin inflating their own lexical choices. Eventually the exaggerated forms become mundane.

Inflation is not always so bombastic. Lately the word curation has been used to refer to the collecting and posting of links on the internet, a curator being someone who does this. Some find it a bit of a stretch, and they have a point. But this often happens to job titles: they get stretched, puffed up, inflated – Subway workers are sandwich artists, cleaning staff are surface technicians, and hairdressers are design directors.

Numbers offer a convenient way to observe the scale of this phenomenon. Take the phrase “give 110%”, which is common in sporting and business contexts. Once it became a cliché, people started feeling they had to give 200% or 1000% or even 10,000% – or they might add a literally or an absolutely. There are examples online of “a million percent” and even 10 million, but I’ll spare you. Giving 100% begins to seem understated beside such lofty “percentages”.

I once tweeted, “Some people think linguistic inflation cheapens words and degrades meaning. Others find it incredibly awesome and totally genius.” The author and composer Anthony Burgess placed himself firmly in the former camp. In his book Language Made Plain, he writes:

A ‘colossal’ film can only be bettered by a ‘super-colossal’ one; soon the hyperbolic forces ruin all meaning. If moderately tuneful pop songs are described as ‘fabulous’, what terms can be used to evaluate Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony?

His complaint is understandable, though you could argue that no terms at all could adequately evaluate Beethoven’s Ninth. But people aren’t going to run out of words: they will always find ways to satisfy the needs of their everyday expression. When an impressive word becomes routine, “a new word will fill its place, by further shift or by coinage”, as the Economist put it.

Burgess, presumably, would not have been appeased. He considered inflation a debasement of language, which he said was a dangerous phenomenon in a world “dominated by propaganda-machines, whether religious, political, or commercial.” And propaganda always lies

because it over-states a case, and the lies tend more and more to reside in the words used, not in the total propositions made out of those words.

Perhaps what’s needed is a little more linguistic deflation.

Tell me, do you inflate words for emphasis, or do you sympathise with Burgess’s lament that “the hyperbolic forces ruin all meaning”? Whatever your approach, I hope you give no less than absolutely 110%.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

42 Comments

  • If bombast was dollars, about thirteen twelfths of the Illuminati would be copywriters. And they’d be the SuperIlluminati Ninjas. Like me.

    A copywriter.

  • Some sociolinguistic groups move in the opposite direction: understatement is not a joke from the British, other sociolects also value the understated as more meaningful (valuable) than anything overstated. So ‘this looks pretty good’ trumps ‘this looks totally amazing!!!’ Do you know more examples?

  • I totally inflate words. It’s an awesome way to increase your own expressiveness, and as one word becomes less epic, another, more amazeballs one comes along to replace it. Fifteen years ago, I would never have used the word “cool” in the same situations as “ah, right.”

    (I’m not actually that fond of amazeballs other than in deliberately comic circumstances, but epic has reached unsustainable inflation levels with me. I need a new word!)

  • Nick: That’s an epic conspiracy theory in the making.

    Annebeth: That’s a good question. Understatement usually has more of an effect on me. Excessive hyperbole often makes me lose interest quickly, unless it’s somehow charming or amusingly ironic or something.

    Aoife: I resort to it myself now and then, happily and shamelessly, but I try not to overdo it! With awesome, epic and legend increasingly inflated, how about mythic?

    Virve: Thank you, and enjoy exploring the site!

    Árpád: That’s wonderful. I saw it years ago and had forgotten all about it. Thank you.

  • This has definitely struck a chord! In the music business, the inflationary adjective of choice is ‘massive’: an upcoming club night is ‘going to be massive’, a record that maybe gets into the top ten (if that still exists?) is a ‘massive hit’, any popular track can be a ‘massive anthem’, and so on.

  • Beth, thank you for the links; somehow I didn’t spot them when I was researching this post. Eleven is a great example. I haven’t heard it used predicatively, as you predict (e.g., “My new bike is totally eleven”), but I’ll report back if I do!

    Michael: That’s an interesting one. The recent nominal usage of massive may be related; I usually hear it in the context of music popular with young people. Similarly, the prefix mega- has gained adverbial senses (“a mega-hit” => “it was mega successful” => “it went mega”).

  • I can think of two examples of linguistic inflation and opposition to it that are mildly interesting. First, my Italian friend who moved to the U.S. in high school says he found our over-use of “love” weird and disagreeable. I know I’m guilty of over-using “love” instead of saying I “like” or “really like” something. My friend said that in Italian you’d never use “amore” or “amo” for your favorite TV show or ice cream flavor.

    Second, have you heard about English poet John Tottenham’s campaign to banish the word “awesome”? I think it’s caught on in the Los Angeles bookstore where he works and nearby stores.
    http://blogs.laweekly.com/informer/2012/01/campaign_to_ban_the_word_awesome_la_poet_echo_park_bookstore.php

  • John: Interesting examples, thank you. I have no problem with love being used to convey feelings for ice cream, but there are very few TV shows I would say I love! The word has a different force in different contexts for different people, and there is no shortage of near-synonyms, such as adore and cherish, for when we want a less predictable expression.
    I hadn’t heard of the campaign to ban awesome. Seems to me like word rage gone out of control, and his description of it as “semantic satiation” is rather loose.

  • Another great article – loved it!
    Dunno if anyone can add to this but I’ve had Japanese students tell me the US is referred to as the “I love you” culture.

  • It is ironic (perhaps) that the over-use of hyperbole transforms them into hypobole …

    Awesome.

    It is instructive that those who consider themselves more erudite will use sublime where they mean … well, pretty good, all things considered.

    Who’s for the return of the great English art of understatement.

    Litotes, anyone?

  • Vicki: Thank you! I haven’t heard that description of the U.S.

    Pete: I’m all for it: understatement is underrated, and there’s usually nothing untoward about litotes.

  • I need to pay much more attention to Twitter! I have been reading Sentence First for a long time, but missing these great articles. I really enjoyed this one, thank you! It reminded me of parts of Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language, one of my faourite books. I also very, very much enjoyed this from your article: ” no terms at all could adequately evaluate Beethoven’s Ninth” – amen!

  • Thanks, Stuart! I like Deutcher’s book a lot too; I found it a smart and very interesting account of the different ways language evolves. As for Beethoven: Burgess’s position is understandable, but there’s very little anyone can do to influence language usage beyond tweaking their own.

  • @ Stan and Pete – Litotes, well it ain’t half bad.

    @ Farkas – brilliant, thanks for the link to Victor Borge, although I am curious how it ended up with Dutch subtitles (not half as funny as the English, but to be fair, it’s impossible to translate linguistic jokes like this without losing meaning)

    @ Stuart – I agree, Deutscher’s book is a great read. Did you (or Stan?) happen to read his latest ‘Through the language glass’? Is it as good?

  • Annebeth, thank you for the link. I haven’t listened to that talk (yet), but I have read some of Boroditsky’s papers investigating the influence on language on thoughts and perception, and some discussion of her research by linguists here and there. The Economist had an interesting debate on the subject.

  • Thank you so much for the link to the Boroditsky lecture, Annabeth, and to the Economist debate, Stan. I would love to see an actual discussion between the two of them. From my simplisitc perspective, the debate seems to be largely about degree, not so much “does language influence thought?” but “how much?” Boroditsky goes further than Liberman, and I think further than Deutscher does in Through the Language Glasss, but from what little I know of Whorf, it does seem that she goes anywhere near those extremes. Perhaps the label “neo-Whorfian” is (ironically?) an attempt t influence perceptions of her work?

  • Stuart: Yes, and not just “how much” (or “how little”) but “in what way” and “under what circumstances”. It’s a fascinating area. I like Lane Greene’s description that language nudges thought.

  • I would say I have thought this same thing “countless” times, but that would ultimately deflate the meaning of what I am saying.

  • Obviously, this problem has grown to zerbloopie levels, and we must resort to the most frabrgrlbl means to sustain ever more dlaphadig increases in linguistic inflation.

  • Instead of using “linguistic inflation,” perhaps you could use the more modest and traditional word “hyperbole.”

  • Steve: No, because they mean different things. Hyperbole refers to the use of exaggeration as a figure of speech, for effect or emphasis; linguistic inflation refers to its semantic effect over time, whereby “the hyperbolic terms gradually normalise”, as I wrote in paragraph 2.

  • Interesting to read that comment. For me as a foreigner (German) it always sounded a bit odd that all those mediocre youtube videos should suddenly awe-inspiring (that is awesome, right?) I guessed it was just me who missed the genius in them.
    Here in Germany we even invent our own English words (that is words that sound English but are ridiculous if an englishman would come to read them)
    But even in “normal” German language you can see the beginnings of the inflation of hyperboles. An urgent job is first “super urgent” then “mega urgent” finally “hyper super mega urgent”

    isn’t that just……. awesome?

  • Thanks for your comment, Marco. There’s no denying the change awesome has undergone: few people use it to mean “awe-inspiring” any more, so dominant has the broader sense become. Whether that’s hyper-super-mega-welcome or -unwelcome is a matter of some contention!

  • […] Legendary has been weakened by loose usage to the point where almost any degree of renown or achievement may be granted the description; similar trends with legend and its spin-off ledge(bag) – peculiarly Irish, I think – complete the inflationary effect. […]

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