Hyperbole is Awesome!
Some conversations, with some people, just tire me out. It’s because of the perversion of our language, not the content of the conversation.
There was a time when, if something was good, you called it good. Now, if it’s good, you have to say it’s fabulous, or awesome, or outstanding, or amazing. “Good” now means mediocre, or disappointing, or maybe even bad. Case in point:
“Hi, Alex. How are you today.”
“Oh? … What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I’m good.”
See? Good isn’t really good any more.
Garrison Keillor, of Prairie Home Companion fame, used to say about his hometown, Lake Wobegon, “… where the women are strong, the men are good looking and all the children are above average.” As hyperbole goes, it’s pretty mild, but it makes the point.
Has there ever, in the history of the world, been an “average” grandchild? I’m a grandparent and so are almost all of my friends and acquaintances. When I look around at our many grandchildren, I see some great ones, some average ones and some problem kids. But I haven’t once heard anything other than glowing descriptions for all of them. And to be truthful, I talk about my own grandkids the same way (but that’s because mine are world-class grandkids so I don’t have to exaggerate).
Want some more hyperbolic examples? Try these:
“This dessert is fabulous!” (Said by me as I choke it down.)
“Politicians are stupid and corrupt.” (Some are lousy, most are okay but unremarkable and a few are truly outstanding.)
“Big businesses are evil, concerned with profits only and don’t give a damn about anything else.” (It seems to me that big businesses are responsible for inventions that make life better for us, for medicines that make life possible for some of us and, of course, for millions of jobs that enable us to make a decent living. Yes, there are abuses, but by and large businesses make positive contributions to humanity.)
Look at the following words and tell me what you think of them: Good. Nice. Okay. Fine. Typical. They’re perfectly good, positive words; yet, when applied to you, they sound slightly insulting, don’t they? Wouldn’t you rather hear these? Great. Fabulous. Awesome. Excellent. Brilliant. Outstanding.
So, the problem with our language these days is that, if you don’t go to the extremes, you’re being insulting. Hyperbole and exaggeration are now used to describe the ordinary, leaving us no vocabulary to describe the extraordinary.
Hyperbole is also used to avoid being boring. Factual is boring. Hyperbole is interesting. So we pick out the very best, or worst, characteristics of something or someone and bear down on that with hyperbolic, and energetic, language (the energy is part of the hyperbole).
Here’s why I think it’s happening:
First of all, humans have an unconscious bias favoring themselves. Over the years, and in dozens of scientific studies, 75–90% of people consistently rate themselves as “above average,” or in some way much better than they actually are in comparison to others. We tend to think we’re better than we are, so when we’re described with lukewarm words, we feel we’ve been misjudged, slighted or even insulted. We want to be described in glowing terms and we believe we deserve them.
Secondly, political correctness now includes the mandate to avoid saying anything that could be considered offensive. If we believe ourselves to be “above average” and we’re hearing people talk about us in moderate terms, we often take offense, and that’s unacceptable. As a society, we’re buying into that idea. So, lukewarm adjectives get crowded out of the language and hyperbole becomes the norm.
The way I see it, you can’t be offended if you don’t believe the insult. In other words, if someone calls you a blockhead, you don’t have to accept or be angered by that judgment. As Mom and Dad told me when I was a youngster, “Consider the source.”
If someone you trust and respect calls you a blockhead, it’s healthy to figure out why he or she did that. It could be useful information, and you might want to change something about yourself to minimize your blockheadedness. But if it’s someone you don’t know, or an antagonist or someone you already know to be a “hyperbolist,” you can safely “consider the source” and ignore the insult. (Did I just invent the term, “hyperbolist’?)
I don’t know about you, but for me this form of political correctness is a problem. I value honesty and I deplore pandering. Yet, when a friend asks if I like her hairdo and it’s a tangled mess of misguided style, I hate to be honest.
So I take the coward’s way out and manufacture some form of positive-sounding response that’s true, although maybe not the kind of response she hoped for, such as: “That’s a really creative hairstyle,” or “I’ll bet the other women are jealous of your remarkable hair.” Yeah … lame, right?
It all leaves me a bit resentful but with nobody to resent. The language is what it is. Hyperbole is the new norm. If I yield to my self-righteousness, I risk offending people, especially those I like and love. That’s not acceptable. So I just go with the flow so I can fit in and avoid giving offense.
I think my partner Ali’s son Brett has it right, even though I don’t like this particular bit of wisdom. By the way, you should know that Brett is a masterful [not hyperbole] wordsmith, with background as, among other things, an editor of books in a reputable publishing house.
Years ago I talked with him about the corruption of our language, and he advised me to recognize it for what it is — evolution, not corruption.
A language is a living, changing thing, he explained, and if you want to communicate with people — and of course we all do — you need to adapt to the prevailing linguistic conventions. Resistance (my first instinct) sets you apart as awkward and sometimes offensive, and you don’t want that.
So, I’ve decided to be awesome.
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