One thing I’ve always enjoyed about the English language as opposed to, say, a stuck-up language like French, is how very organic English is. It’s constantly evolving along with our civilization. New words are invented by kids or the media or the arts or technology; new grammar develops; or, English is merged with other languages as cultures integrate.
This is all good.
I’m having a little trouble, though, with the trend toward the misuse of hyperbole. Hyperbole can be very effective when making a point. I do it all the time. But recently it seems like some of our best words are being corroded and weakened due to overuse.
We don’t have weather reports anymore, have you noticed? It’s all “warnings”:
- Rainfall warning in effect;
- Wind warnings in outlying areas;
- UV index warnings (this used to be called “a sunny day”).
In the news every assault is committed by an “animal”; every killer is evil, a monster, or even an “inhuman” monster. Everything a celebrity does is a sensation, inspiring.
People are no longer just famous, they’re “icons” or even “legendary” icons.
Sporting events are always “epic”. I doubt there has been a single sporting event in recent memory that comes close to being an epic. The sports world is particularly keen on hyperbole. Slaughters , massacres and sudden deaths occur frequently. Titans are usually involved. And, of course, everyone’s a hero.
A hero is someone who risks or sacrifices his/her life; who acts with courage and nobility, not someone who makes several million dollars a year to toss a ball around — no matter how good he is at it.
In the news, bad stuff that happens is always horrific, cataclysmic, disastrous, or apocalyptic.
The Holocaust was horrific –not a 3-car collision. The sinking of the Titanic was disastrous — not a shortage of PEI potatoes. And, I think, the adjective, “apocalyptic” should be saved up for the actual Apocalypse, if/when it happens. Otherwise, we won’t have a good adjective left to describe it.
Jazz and I had a brief discussion about this recently on her blog. She noted that “awesome,” has long ago lost all meaning. There is very little in every day life that actually fills one with awe – the birth of a child, perhaps. Definitely not a good price on flip-flops.
Look what happened to “awful.” Originally it meant, “commanding awe” or “filled with awe”, like maybe the person witnessing the birth of his child is awful. Now it means something bad. What a shame. The idea of “awe” is one I really like; something we don’t experience enough of; but when it happens I would like to be able to describe it using a word that fully expresses it.
Tragedy is one that, to me, is particularly misused. It’s such an important and fragile word and it’s being devalued. A tragedy is not just something sad. Lots of sad stuff happens all the time – people die or get killed, children become ill, animals are abused. All these things are sad, frustrating, even distressing but they’re not tragic.
The concept of tragedy is actually quite complex and I don’t like to see it watered down. Essentially it’s a literary genre involving a main character brought to ruin or suffering extreme sorrow, especially as a consequence of a tragic flaw, moral weakness, or inability to cope with unfavorable circumstances.
An important part of tragedy is that, in the end, it is somehow meaningful. It’s difficult to apply such a concept to any single event, no matter how wretched.
Lots of great words are becoming ambiguous, devalued and powerless, just to embellish run-of-the-mill stories. An event that provokes a real intellectual or emotional response will carry its own impact without the need for lazy hyperbolic short-cuts.