WARNING!! Cataclysmic Hyperbole Pandemic!

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.


22 responses to “WARNING!! Cataclysmic Hyperbole Pandemic!

  1. I thought it was pronounced hyper-bowl, like super bowl. I even knew there was the word hyPERboLEE because I’d heard it spoken, but I never connected the two. I agree with your thoughts on the misuse of words — and ideas too. I am bothered by the way the media pluralizes things to excess. Even when there is only one crime, events are described in terms of “robberies”. That’s a lousy (as in full of lice) example but in fact, I am having ‘a moment’ and cannot recall a good example.

  2. Bandobras – Yes. Yes, I do ALL the time — every freakin’ second of my life.

    Julia – I had the same issue with ennui. I’d heard it and I’d read it, but never made the connection between the the written word and spoken word.

    Zoom – Thanks, you have my undying gratitude.

  3. I love love love word posts! I’m such a wordie. If you don’t like hyperbole, don’t read “A heartbreaking work of staggering genius” by David Eggers (now publishes McSweeney magazine. He’s a genius by the way).
    The whole book is hyperbole, and I think he does it that way because he’s writing about the time in his life right after his mom and dad die very very close together and he’s left taking care of his 7 year-old younger brother. I think during that time he felt that all his emotions were heightened: when he felt good, he didn’t just feel good, he felt amazingly-fantastically-through-the-roof-fabulous, and when he felt bad, well, you get it…
    It worked there, but I know what you mean in general… Another word that I wonder about is “Incredible”. We use it to mean very cool, but think about it. The root is “credible” and the prefix “in” should be a negation. So what are we supposed to say for “not credible”. Wouldn’t that be “incredible”… how does that work? it’s like “awesome” I think.

  4. More weather hyperbole:

    In So Cal we barely have seasons to speak of, yet if a light rain of five or so sprinkles is on the way, we are on “STORM WATCH (insert year here)” for days. It is ridiculous!

    noha: I loved A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. What a great reference for this discussion.

  5. Don’t get me started!
    As a television news producer responsible for such things, I am constantly bitching at our young reporters and writers to give the viewer a bit of credit for some intelligence, and just present the facts. Let the viewer decide whether something is horrific, tragic, awesome, whatever.
    I also bitch at them to check a dictionary once every millennium or so, and make sure they know the meanings of the words they think make their stories more powerful, when, in fact, they are used incorrectly, and diminish our news department’s credibility, bit by bit.
    I also hate what Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes calls verbing nouns. You can’t access, reference or impact anything. You can have access or impact and make reference, but the words are not verbs on their own. I heard a new one while on vacation and should have written it down, because it eludes me at the moment.
    English! What a concept!

  6. Oh thank you thank you thank you!!!

    Such an awesome post!!!

    I’m so tired of hyperbole. We have a language with all the necessary and precise words. Use them!!!

    And for the record, French isn’t stuck-up. We frogs are evolving too! ;-P

  7. Noha – No, I love hyperbole if used well & I’m going to get this book and read it. Thanks. I don’t see incredible as a hugely misused word. People do use it to mean “unbelievable” – for both good and bad stuff. But an incredible dinner, for instance might be stretching things. Unless the cook is usually really bad or something.

    Bandobras – Do what?

    Lesley – Really! We never just get rain or snow or warm weather anymore. It’s always storms, watches, warnings and heat waves. So when there really is a storm coming nobody believes it or prepares for it. Then we have DISASTER! This happened in Halifax in 2003.

    Bob – I’m not sure about verbing nouns. I think that might fall under the natural evolution of the language. To “access a website” has become common terminology because of technology. As I said at the beginning of the post, English grammar isn’t carved in stone, like other languages’ & it shouldn’t be. Things like noun verbing seem to me to enhance the language whereas eroding some of our best words so they have no more meaning harms the language.

    Violetsky – Gee! High praise indeed. With all modesty, I must say I think it’s the greatest blog post I’ve ever written today.

    Jazz – Hey – you sort of inspired this post. Thank YOU. But, after half a lifetime of trying to memorize the seemingly endless list of French verb conjugations, no one’s going to tell me that French is a relaxed, chillin’ language. Maybe the vernacular has evolved a bit, but I’ll bet a French dictionary from 100 years ago is exactly the same as one published yesterday?

  8. Good post, but I have to admit I got good and stuck on your first paragraph. Stuck-up language like French. I howled! You see, I have recently transplanted myself to Quebec to live with the Urbane Lion and I am struggling big time with the French language. And not because it’s stuck-up. Quite the opposite actually. I have long since given up asking the Lion when to use a particular word. For example, ‘à’ can mean going to, but it can also mean belonging to. BUT ‘de’ means belonging to. So when do I use ‘à’ and when do I use ‘de’ to denote possession? His response? “I don’t know. Just mimic what I say; don’t question it.” Oh, I can’t wait to tell the Lion is language is stuck-up! You have so made my day!

  9. Omigosh, I love word posts. I read the other day that the folks in Quebec are upset because English words are making their way into the French dictionary. Well, English is made up of a lot of French, Dutch, Hindi, etc., etc., so I guess languages are always going through some sort of metamorphisis.

    But, what is the English language going to do when it has run out of hyperbole?

    I am a grammar fanatic too. The other day on CBC news I actually heard a newscaster say, “Should have went.”

    Should have went?

    My grade six teacher would have a heart attack.

    I love words that mean the same and also opposite, like sanction. What are those called again?

    And thank you for the award. How did I miss that????

    Thank you!!

  10. UA – See, Lion’s response was totally stuck-up. Like it’s such an ethereal language it can’t even be taught, but can only be absorbed by very elite people.

    Jo – Contronyms — like seed, consult, weather, bolt. And they actually said, “should have went” on CBC? That’s definitely not acceptable, no matter how the language evolves

  11. I loved this post but as I was reading, I was thinking, “oh man, how guilty am I?” I’m sure I do this without even thinking about it but it is also a pet peeve of mine when others do it.

    I have one friend who only has ‘the BEST DAY EVER’ or ‘the WORST DAY IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD’. She never just…is. I ask her repeatedly to beef up her vocabulary because she cannot live her life in the extremes.

  12. I love verbing nouns. That’s what makes english so organic. i.e. I “googled” this or I was skyping or whatever. And it doesn’t only have to be with technology words, that’s just all I can come up with right now.

  13. Debra, it sounds like your friend is from the book 1984. She should be having “Double-plus good” days or “double plus un-good days”….

  14. Bob – Oh. Influx, eh? I can’t see that as a verb, you’re right.

    Debra – We all love to use hyperbole for comic effect and that’s cool. It’s the media using it to beef up their stories that is the worst, really.

    Noha – I agree!

  15. I am quite guilty of overusing the word “awesome.” I use it for everything. Good, bad, ugly… everything.

    That said, I completely feel you on this. I have a sister-in-law who is “devastated” by every little thing that happens. She’s always saying how devastated she was by the prices at Walmart, or her kids’ grades, or traffic…. it’s completely ridiculous.