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%.Email this Post