Is linguistic inflation insanely awesome?

Posted by on April 17, 2012

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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Comments (42)
  • If bombast was dollars, about thirteen twelfths of the Illuminati would be copywriters. And they’d be the SuperIlluminati Ninjas. Like me.

    A copywriter.

    Posted by Nick McGivney on 17th April, 2012
  • 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?

    Posted by Annebeth on 17th April, 2012
  • 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!)

    Posted by Aoife on 17th April, 2012
  • I sympathise 110%. Just discovered this blog and can’t wait to read the rest of the stuff.

    Posted by Virve Juhola on 17th April, 2012
  • This reminds me of a brilliant sketch by Victor Borge, who, with no exaggeration, was a true genius: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YY6kElOYcd8

    Posted by Árpád Farkas on 17th April, 2012
  • […] it good or the most insanely awesome thing imaginable? Looking at linguistic inflation. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

    Posted by Links Galore « Annie Cardi on 17th April, 2012
  • 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.

    Posted by Stan on 17th April, 2012
  • Hi Stan – great post and pretty funny. I see some synergies here with my earlier blogs, if anyone wants to read a little more around this subject. http://www.macmillandictionaryblog.com/ten-out-of-ten-is-not-enough, http://www.macmillandictionaryblog.com/the-new-f-word .

    Thanks!
    Beth.

    Posted by Beth Penfold on 18th April, 2012
  • 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.

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 18th April, 2012
  • 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”).

    Posted by Stan on 18th April, 2012
  • […] a side note, after reading Stan Carey‘s post on “linguistic inflation” yesterday, I decided that maybe we create more slang terms because we tend to overstate […]

    Posted by The Online Slang Dictionary! | Lexifab! on 18th April, 2012
  • […] Is linguistic inflation insanely awesome? | Macmillan. Rate this: Share this:EmailMoreShare on TumblrDigg Pin ItPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Tags: language, linguistic inflation, macmillan dictionary, repost, stan carey, writing […]

    Posted by Is linguistic inflation insanely awesome? | Macmillan « Project Chiron on 19th April, 2012
  • […] the inflation of everything, while at the Macmillan Dictionary blog, Stan Carey wondered if linguistic inflation was insanely awesome. Also at Macmillan, Orin Hargraves discussed adverbial modification in British and American […]

    Posted by This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words on 20th April, 2012
  • […] or are so dense/see their audience as so dense that they cannot be satisfied with mere hyperbole. Stan Carey writes about this linguistic inflation and sort of manages to come down on the right side, by the end of the column. He does quote […]

    Posted by Wise thoughts on “literally” vs. “figuratively” | John Petrie’s LifeBlag on 23rd April, 2012
  • […] Agreement A different approach to OCR for translation Human translation: What influences rates? Is linguistic inflation insanely awesome? How to Buy a Translation – the 7 Keys Reasonable reply to a common request 11 Forms of Word […]

    Posted by Weekly favorites (Apr 16-22) | Adventures in Freelance Translation on 23rd April, 2012
  • 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

    Posted by John Petrie on 23rd April, 2012
  • 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.

    Posted by Stan on 25th April, 2012
  • […] recently wrote about linguistic inflation for Macmillan Dictionary Blog, asking self-referentially if the phenomenon was “insanely […]

    Posted by The problem with banning words « Sentence first on 26th April, 2012
  • 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.

    Posted by Vicki Hollett on 27th April, 2012
  • […] this piece on linguistic inflation alerted me to the growing use of the word “curate” in non-museum contexts. Now that I […]

    Posted by Internet Curation 4.27.12 « Chasing Claudia Kincaid on 27th April, 2012
  • 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?

    Posted by pete langman on 30th April, 2012
  • 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.

    Posted by Stan on 1st May, 2012
  • 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!

    Posted by Stuart on 29th May, 2012
  • 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.

    Posted by Stan on 30th May, 2012
  • @ 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?

    Posted by Annebeth on 3rd June, 2012
  • Annebeth: I liked it. Not as impressive as The Unfolding of Language, I felt, but well worth reading. If you’re interested: my thoughts on Through the Language Glass.

    Posted by Stan on 3rd June, 2012
  • […] Is linguistic inflation insanely awesome? (Macmillan DIctionary) – Is massively hyperbolic hyperbole leaving writers nowhere to go? The problem with banning words (Sentence First) – Stan Carey (the writer of the previous post) looks at whether its constructive to prohibit writers from using certain words. […]

    Posted by Copy Edited… Must-read links: 28 May – 3 June | Copy edited on 3rd June, 2012
  • @Annebeth – I would agree with Stan that TTLG is not as good as the Unfolding of Language, but as one of (the) quasi literate hoi polloi for whom the book was likely intended, I did enjoy it a great deal. If you want a much less informed and educated response to it, here is my excited review of it http://fiftypachaas.blogspot.co.nz/2012/05/book-0550-through-language-glass.html

    Posted by Stuart on 4th June, 2012
  • @Stuart @Stan – Thanks for sharing your eloquent reviews! Great read in itself 🙂
    This is leading away from linguistic inflation, but have you even seen Lera Boroditsky on this topic? A long but intriguing video:
    http://fora.tv/2010/10/26/Lera_Boroditsky_How_Language_Shapes_Thought#fullprogram
    Starts out with some inspiration in homonyms (very cool in itself, especially for linguistic amateurs like me) but you can skip to chapter 3.

    Posted by Annebeth on 10th June, 2012
  • 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.

    Posted by Stan on 10th June, 2012
  • 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?

    Posted by Stuart on 11th June, 2012
  • 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.

    Posted by Stan on 11th June, 2012
  • I would say I have thought this same thing “countless” times, but that would ultimately deflate the meaning of what I am saying.

    Posted by Joe on 8th July, 2012
  • 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.

    Posted by Bryan on 9th July, 2012
  • Joe, Bryan: You might enjoy this On Language note on the not-quite-countless meanings of countless.

    Posted by Stan on 9th July, 2012
  • Instead of using “linguistic inflation,” perhaps you could use the more modest and traditional word “hyperbole.”

    Posted by Steve on 9th July, 2012
  • 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.

    Posted by Stan on 10th July, 2012
  • […] natch (naturally), /kaʒ/ (casual), dodge (dodgy), and tradge (tragic) — which through semantic inflation can be used to refer to pretty much anything mildly regrettable. The exaggeration is often […]

    Posted by ‘Ledgebag’ is totes amaze « Sentence first on 23rd July, 2012
  • 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?

    Posted by Warm, Marco on 19th March, 2013
  • 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!

    Posted by Stan on 19th March, 2013
  • […] 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. […]

    Posted by St. George? Total legend. | Sentence first on 31st May, 2013
  • […] Dead, or living too well? Is linguistic inflation insanely awesome? […]

    Posted by Ivan Pesin - Links: Jan 19th on 18th January, 2014
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