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Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

When the clerk at my grocery store asked if I found everything I was looking for, I said yes and she said “Awesome!” In the time it took her to scan my dozen items and take my payment, she said awesome seven more times. I don’t know about you, but I believe awesome means astonishing, breath-taking, awe-inspiring, magnificent, stunning, wondrous, and staggering, none of which apply to any customer-clerk transaction I’ve ever been a part of.

We live in a marketing society that incessantly bombards us with superlatives. 

Marketing is the process of enticing us enough to buy whatever they’re peddling. It is a given that marketers lean heavily on making exaggerated claims to stimulate and excite us in their relentless efforts to convince us of the superiority of their products and services. Ask any marketers you know and they’ll tell you one of the ironclad tenets of advertising is the need to stand out from the clutter. Paradoxically, in their efforts to do that, most of the ads they batter us with create even more clutter.

Too many advertisers believe the best way to stand out from the crowd is by shouting louder than everyone else.

Learn to run away from products and services that make obviously exaggerated claims. When they howl at me, I turn them off. A favorite is the tv ad that showed a miracle instant baldness cure in a spray can. The gullible didn’t realize it was nothing more than paint.

Brian Merchant had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he wrote an article called These Are the Biggest, Most Insane and Totally Overused Adjectives on the Internet – They’re Epic! Mind-blowing! Stunning! He tells us the interweb is not to be trusted because it’s always hyping things up with obnoxious and misleading adjectives. He says “it has eroded the very meaning of superlatives by normalizing the insane and making the pedestrian epic. The internet is a sea of semi-anonymous pitchmen, carnival barkers that yell after you with the best adjectives they can muster. They are aggressive, they are coy, they are seductive, they are dumb, and they are full of promises. And they are all meaningless because they all cancel each other out.”

The original slang creators were being playful and clever.

But for the followers, the ultimate effect is again quite the opposite. Interesting, precise, and meaningful words have now become bland, broad, useless ones. InsideHook says “Our collective tendency for hyperbole – for defining everything as amazing or awesome – is in fact rendering everything kind of lackluster. For anything to be truly great, our collective celebration of mediocrity must end.”

A Nation of Sheep.

Those of us who have watched YouTube videos know most of the ones claiming to be the Best Ever are dreadful. How can so many people think “best ever” sets them apart when what it really does is identify them as a faceless part of a dull-witted herd? It’s amazing when you think about it.

What few people realize is that only one of anything can be the best. 

It’s what the word means. 

  • Good is used as a standalone adjective that means fulfilling all requirements by being acceptable or adequate. No comparison is made with other things. This article is a good one. 
  • Better is used to compare a thing with other, similar things. This article is better than the ones I read on Quora and answers.com.
  • Best is the superlative form and means surpassing all others – there can be only one. This article is the best of all the ones I’ve ever read. 

Of course it isn’t. Of the hundreds of articles I’ve written, this one is not the best. I think it’s good and I think it’s better than many of them, but I know it’s not my best ever. 

The boundaries of our experiences and our frames of reference limit every one of us. 

Every time we make a judgment by drawing a comparison, we are reduced to choosing from our limited set of experiences. Only a few people have read even half of my articles. As the writer, I have not only read them all, but I also judge what I write differently than do readers; as a researcher, I see things differently than non-researchers; and so on.

Teenagers say their high school is the best ever when they’ve attended only one. To conclude which is the best-ever video on YouTube would mean watching more than 100 billion of them. The next time you hear someone say best video ever, ask how many billions they’ve watched.

What so few people seem to understand is this: only one that claims “best ever” status can possibly be right – all the others are wrong. As the Inuit saying goes, “When you’re not a lead dog, your view never changes.”

I know iconic to mean something extraordinary.

I also know it to mean the most perfect embodiment of something flawless. These days it is indiscriminately applied to things that are ordinary, things that are not the perfect incarnation of anything. It is applied so indiscriminately that a web search for <iconic> yields 500 million results. Steven Karras calls for an immediate moratorium on the word “iconic,” especially by those who have to look up moratorium.

Icon is from the Greek word for “image.” 

The original meaning was “an image of a sacred figure.” In time, it became any person idolized by millions, such as Elvis Presley, Muhammad Ali, or Diego Maradona.

When we talk about icons today, we usually mean those little pictographs on our phones, tablets, laptops, and desktops. Artist Susan Kare designed the icons for the Macintosh in 1984. She said “I believe that good icons are more akin to road signs rather than illustrations, and ideally should present an idea in a clear, concise, and memorable way.”

The first epics were long narrative poems recounting the deeds of legendary heroes.

Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey are early epics. In time, epic came to mean extending beyond the usual size or scope and the word was used to describe films that were big, wide, and spectacular, like Ben-Hur, Gone With the Wind, and Lawrence of Arabia.

Nathan Heller, writing in the New Yorker, tells us the origin of what passes for epic these days was first recorded in 1983 in a story in USA Today that mentioned David Pharies, a University of Florida linguistics professor who asked 350 sophomores for examples of college slang and got mint, awesome, prime, epic, golden, and others. By 1985 “epic” was showing up in Surfer magazine, dude, and by the late nineties “had settled into the cringeworthy constructions where it sits today.” Heller believes epic is a word that should only be used to describe something truly massive. Instead, “words like ‘epic’ allow people to reach for grandiose adventurism from a position of the comfortably banal.”

Literally vs figuratively. 

Literally is another hackneyed term that these days is almost always used figuratively and without apparent irony (“I literally died!”). Literally means precisely; figuratively means departing from a literal use of words. It is a metaphor – a figure of speech that is used symbolically to represent something else.

Hackneyed is an 18th century word that described an ordinary horse hired out for ordinary riding. It later evolved to mean “made commonplace and unremarkable by overuse.” It’s amusing to hear people use the exact opposite word for what they’re actually saying, because when they do, they run the risk of people thinking they are  oxymorons. In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, Humpty Dumpty tells Alice: “When I use a word, it means what I choose it to mean.” 

It’s not just ads and the interweb, either. 

If you care at all how the overuse of superlatives kills your credibility, read Preston Schlueter’s article here. He tells us how excessive use of superlatives robs our conversations of three important things:

  • Variety. There are plenty of words in the English language. Get to know more of them.
  • Specificity. Choose more nuanced words because subtle distinctions make all the difference.
  • Veracity. Overuse of superlatives makes your reasoning cheap and untrustworthy and causes people to stop listening to what you’re saying.
The more you use superlatives, the less likely people will pay attention to what you say.

As Don McMinn says, “Superlatives are like paper currency: issue too many and the value falls.” Amy Bailey writes about our superlative-saturated world in Not Everything Is Epic! She says when she feels her ears are about to bleed, her brain turns off. She notes that the Bible tells us when the world was created, “God separated the light from darkness and saw the light was good.” How’s that for understatement? Personally, I think separating the light from darkness is totally awesome.

William J. Lederer wrote about the gullibility, the apathy, and the indifference of the great American public in his book, A Nation of Sheep. He says “Because we are a nation of headline readers, we grasp none of what’s beneath the surface and so we don’t know enough to do anything. I want to let the average guy know he’s been had.”

That’s one of the reasons I have written more than two hundred articles like this. I want to help people not only understand that they’re being had nine times out of ten when it comes to research and information and ads, but also what they can do about it.

To read more articles like this, click here.

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