Stop Super-Sizing the English Language!

Hurricane Sandy has come and gone, and I sit here in Alexandria, Virginia, once again marveling at our collective ability to over-hype. I don’t mean to play down the impact of this storm, just because I never saw the high winds and tree losses the experts had predicted for my area; plenty of folks on the Jersey shore, lower Manhattan and Long Island, West Virginia and elsewhere experienced historic devastation. But since when did the word “hurricane” prove insufficient to describe a powerful act of weather? I recognize that it morphed into a post-tropical cyclone. But why does it have to be a “Superstorm?” Or, Heaven forbid, a “Frankenstorm?”

I’m sorry, does a hurricane this massive really need a cute name to signify its magnitude? (Image courtesy NOAA)

I’d blame this verbal escalation on the 24-hour news channels that provide us 24 minutes of news recycled all day, but they are too easy a target. We viewers adopt those over-hyped labels. Here in northern Virginia two years ago I survived a “Snowpocalypse.” I’m pretty sure the end of the world is going to involve more than 18 inches of snow and a few airport closures. Folks in L.A. have twice now been told that the temporary closing of a freeway would lead to “Carmageddon.” The final battle of good and evil, played out over cars? Oh Lord, I feel another Transformers movie coming on.

We have been doing this for some time, taking words that already encompass significant scale or impact–like “hurricane”–and modifying or replacing them with no good reason. Take “unique.” The word means “being without a like or equal.” Yet how often do we hear an interesting individual called “pretty unique,” or a rare item called “very unique”? How can you be degrees of unique? Why do we feel the need to insert a modifier in front of an absolute?

But I haven’t mentioned yet the nails-on-a-blackboard abomination that has permeated popular culture and, I fear, could find its way into permanent usage. Tell, me, honestly, why do we need the word “ginormous”? With “gigantic” we “are exceeding the usual or expected,” and with “enormous” we are “marked by extraordinarily great size, number, or degree.” I have yet to hear anything referred to as “ginormous” that could not have been fully described with one of these two words. This word inflation is a gigantic cultural problem, and its implications are enormous.

But perhaps this goes far deeper than simply word choice. We inflate the importance of individuals (I’m sorry, I care about Tom Cruise’s marital challenges why again?) and events (Kim Kardashian’s wedding ceremony affects me how?). Those 24-hour news channels and their brethren up and down the TV dial need fresh content to feed us, but we happily consume it. Each and every offering tastes totally unique.

It’s been ten years since Eric Schlosser shamed us with Fast Food Nation, highlighting how McDonald’s captures children with devious brand loyalty techniques. (Any parent knows this without reading any book.) It’s been eight years since Morgan Spurlock released Super Size Me, a documentary in which his constant consumption of oversized burger meals nearly killed him. I’ll confess that I still occasionally hit the McDonald’s, and I do sometimes super-size my Double Quarter Pounder meal (I’m sorry, Mayor Bloomberg, I can’t get enough Diet Coke). But at least I feel guilty when I do so, and perhaps I do it less than I might have before Schlosser’s book and Spurlock’s film.

What had been billed as a modest rainstorm in September 2011 formed a small creek in my back yard. I have no “Superstorm Sandy” devastation photos to share, because all we ended up with was a few damp leaves in our driveway.

Is our society even capable of shame anymore? “The Learning Channel,” after all, gives us a pudgy beauty-pageant toddler drinking “go-go juice,” and we make it one of the highest rated shows on television. That show may be the sign that the “Wordpocalypse” is here, with a character named “Honey Boo Boo” and the producer’s decision to include subtitles so that the show participants’ fractured English can be understood by its viewers.

Ah, maybe that’s the solution? Maybe those smarties in Silicon Valley can develop a broad-based closed captioning usable on any show that converts super-sized speech to words that still convey the proper meaning without losing perspective? I want that feature whenever The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore is on the screen. (Oh, and can we tell these jackalopes to stop telling viewers–who, because they are watching on cable TV, are likely inside–to stay inside during a storm, while they stand outside modeling the very behavior they are warning against? If we can’t rein in their rhetoric, then at least sweep one out to sea and give him a ginormous scare.)

But proportional-language closed-captioning on TV won’t go far enough. I hear these terms everywhere I go. We use them. We abuse them. There are now “Google Goggles” that allow you to surf the Web while you wear them (and you thought texting while driving was a problem.) I want glasses that auto-caption the speech of those around me. Don’t be offended if you see me put in ear plugs. I’m “hearing” you just fine.

But are you hearing me? Do you share my oversized angst? Or am I howling at the wind, which even at half the speed predicted by the TV talking heads is still pretty fierce?

[This post was revised to distinguish between Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me.]

UPDATE NOV. 4: Many thanks to Andrew Sullivan for highlighting this post on The Daily Beast.  Andrew’s post guided me to an interesting follow-up post to this one by Kevin Staley-Joyce on First Things Magazine.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

58 Responses to “Stop Super-Sizing the English Language!”

  1. Wanted to write a somewhat sarcastic set of exaggerated comments to agree with you, but since I do agree with you, I decided to delete them.
    And you can add in when people give 110%…. Really annoying. I often wonder where they acquire the other 10% from. :-)
    Think I must be in a picky mood today. Posted a picky post too!

  2. The more the language used to describe something becomes bloated and draws attention to itself, the less the object of that description is being noticed. Language then becomes a distraction from what is being told. That’s why more and more insanities and idiocies are allowed to come sit with us on the couch — they’re eased into our homes and minds through distracting language.

    Not that convoluted and exaggerated language isn’t fun, it certainly is. But mostly unintentionally so.

    Great post, Patrick. Glad the storm left you unscathed. :)

    • Hi Vero! First, thanks for the well wishes.

      Yes, we become inured to the true impact of things, almost like a drug addict keeps escalating their use to feel the same level of buzz. But I fear I may be over-inflating the harm of this trend by comparing it to something that can kill. So be it!

  3. I wish I could send this to every one I ever taught. I banned two words from both written and spoken discussion and assignments: tragic and evil. When we talked about Oedipus, tragic was allowed in, but evil never saw air, not even for Macbeth.

    It drives me nuts to hear that everything is tragic, when I watch television. If that were so, then what word do we use for ultimate situations. Sad is a perfectly good word, but we’ve lost it somewhere. So many speak in ultimates, that when a storm like Sandy comes along they are left grasping for beyond ultimate.

    Whew! I feel cleansed! I went through my entire classroom rant in my head while responding.

    • Good for you, Margo! I hadn’t really thought about the over-use of those words, but yes, I see it now.

      My current Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA advisor strikes out my every use of the word “share” or “sharing,” as in providing a window on yourself (not passing the plate of bacon, which I am loathe to do). She says the word is over-used to the point of having lost its meaning. I think she is right, but it still tells the reader exactly what you are trying to convey. So be it. As the author of award-winning memoirs (Sue Silverman) I cede to her wisdom!

    • If we commit ourselves to being good writers — even just good communicators — I think it requires us to use language in a nuanced way. The three most common problems I see in the modern usage of American English are: the misuse of existing words, the overuse of superlatives, and other words being used too frequently and hence given an overly simplified connotation — like “evil” and “tragic” in your own experience.

      As an autistic individual, I have struggled to communicate in a manner in which conveys my thoughts and messages as accurately as possible. I love the difference nuances of words, the shades of difference in meaning between them. How do we combat exaggerated hyperbole and oversimplification?

      -Nicole

      • Nicole, I just read this. Will respond tomorrow when I haven’t got a glass of Spanish Red inside me and may be more articulate [no guarantee].

      • There you are. I knew I wanted to get back to this and then didn’t remember where it was.

        I think for our generations, we have lost the war, but can still win battles. As with everything it has to start with parents and it should be carried on by teachers. That’s where we are losing. No one is teaching the parents and teachers what it is that is needed.

        I don’t think there are many editors around who know what it is they should be looking for and doing, when they have a manuscript of any sort. I see too much go by that an editor should have caught.

        My mother shakes her head and says there are too many people. No one has time or a strategy for so many people.

        I think we keep on battling where we can. I feel increasingly cornered.

  4. Devil’s advocate: Playing with words and exaggeration are fun. Since the goal of language is communication, then if the idea was communicated, the way the language was used was successful. I agree about hyperbole creating a need for more and more extreme phrasing, but only writers, with their exacting word choice, really care. The rest of the world has larger fish to fry…or should I say “more awesomely ginormous fish to grill”?

    • Hi Sue! Great to see you here again.

      I could not agree more that only writers care. Thus the “shouting into the wind” metaphor! :) And your point is well taken that if the goal is simply to communicate, then success was achieved. I think some writers set higher goals.

      • I’m curious how you would articulate those “higher goals” some writers have beyond word play and communication. I think that would get to the heart of the discomfort with sensational writing we’re talking about.

  5. A barometer of where general culture is? Americans have to be enteertained, they play. Not all for sure. There are many thoughtful, perceptive and discening Americans, but the general press promotes an Adult Sesame Street tone – when my husband and I returned from Russia (a 3ish year stint), we were astounded by the weather people – all to entetain! go figure

    • Go figure indeed! Thanks for that perspective; I can imagine there were a lot of shocks when you came back from three years in Russia, but I’m not surprised that was one of them.

      • I wrote a book Without A Net: A Sojourn in Russia, on amazon or in my garage (smile); popular; i also have another book unrelated, but i like it more, You Carry the Heavy Stuff, Lulu, and Amazon; i haven’t figured out why I don’t get checks from amazon, and I have to investigate-best to you

  6. Very interesting. You call people in Silicon Valley “smarties” in the middle of shouting “get off my linguistic lawn!” Pot to kettle, come in kettle. Language revolves through many things, including exaggeration. The word “reek” once meant sweet smelling, and used in extreme ironic exaggeration now means its opposite. ‘Twas ever thus.

  7. I think one of the problems is that people want all-day news to give them a high, cheer up their humdrum days, and make them feel they’re living in exciting times. And so every time a news bulletin is read in that false, excited, rah-rah voice, they need to ramp up the excitement level with these huge exaggerations…And I also feel that people who are involved in these money raising 24 hour programmes and trying to get sales for newspapers, never let good taste get in their way…
    And in the end, standards. whether in language, politics, food, art, building, -whatever -, matter.
    This is probably old fashioned…

    • Valerie, I’ve been told I was born old-fashioned, so bring it on!

      Yes, I agree with your flow chart there. Having spent most of my life in the media, I know it’s a free enterprise. Outlets are in competition with other media and an increasing number of distractions for dollars. And good taste doesn’t always sell, which is why many countries have a Ministry of Culture to support the arts (we in the US have a much more limited support system of public broadcasting subsidies and NEA and NEH grants).

      And yes, standards matter, but it can feel like a losing battle, and not every battle is worth winning. I have a hardcover 1959 “revised” version of Emily Post’s Etiquette. There’s a lot to learn about proper behavior in there, but there are also lines like this, a description of a woman’s “shortcomings” in the workplace: “Mood, temper, jealousy, especially when induced by a “crush on” her employer or a fellow worker–these are the chief flaws of the woman in business and a constant source of annoyance in every office where she exists. The greatest handicap to woman’s advancement in business is her inability to leave her personal feelings and affairs at home.” Wow!

      Okay, it looks like I may be starting a new post!

  8. Loved this piece, Patrick! I have shuddered at the use of “Very unique” repeatedly or, “terrible tragedy.” Good grief! I think the drive to over-dramatize our language goes to the American predilection for “bigger and better.” The result of which is to desensitize us to the impact of perfectly good words (or reasonably sized hamburgers) and, further, to lose the use of words’ impacts because they have been poorly and over used. A tragedy is what happened to Jerry Sandusky’s victims but not the fact that the PSU football program has been decimated in the process.

    • Fantastic analogy between PSU’s former defensive coordinator and the program, a distinction it would seem PSU administrators couldn’t parse.

      Great to have you visit once again, and thanks as always for your readership!

  9. A rant, Patrick, but a classy, erudite rant!

  10. Great post Patrick. I try to limit my news intake and told my mother, that it’s become more like the soap operas. You can watch it on Monday, and come back on Friday and your just about in the same place with a few new faces and one scene change. Perhaps the inventive words they like to merge to create one descriptive title, was inspired by what they do with famous couples now. I understand that this was brought on for the purpose of shortening things down, to text. Tom-Kat, K-Pat. There is no longer one individual name for each person, but two merged shorty’s to make one name for both. I hate this as well. And when they bust up, and find someone knew, they get a brand new name….hmm I wonder if that might be the culprit behind half the break-ups? It’s not, “what’s your sign?” anymore…”what do you like to do?” It’s will their name make a good couple-name with mine?

    • Ah yes, Tom-Kat, K-Pat, great example! Very tweetable, too, so few characters. Of course, now, you and your daughter have a combined pen name, so there are times where a combined name works! :)

  11. If journalists don’t produce the juicy titles – they will lose, because their competitors will.
    Besides, the readers are already desensitized and will not react to objective wording.

    • Thanks for the input, Augis. I’m not convinced most viewers say, “Oh, I’m not going to watch this news channel, they haven’t come up with a goofy name for this deadly storm,” but perhaps I overestimate the viewer.

  12. “Ginormous” is apparently older than my dad, and I know I learned it from a movie in 1986. Probably time to throw in that towel, Patrick.

  13. You wrote that, “It’s been ten years since Eric Schlosser shamed us with Fast Food Nation, mocking our obsession with super-sized burger meals by nearly killing himself by consuming them.”

    I think that you’ve confused Fast Food Nation, journalist Eric Schlosser’s 2002 book criticizing the American fast food industry, with Super Size Me, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary in which he ate McDonald’s for a month.

  14. Did you even follow the news coverage that annoyed you so greatly? The reason “hurricane” was an “insufficient” descriptor was that there was concern that Sandy would merge with an oncoming cold front, creating a unique weather phenomenon.

    And why do we need “ginormous”? For grins. Go watch Will Ferrell’s “Elf”, and then try _not_ to smile to yourself every time you hear it used thereafter.

    • Hmm. Did you see this in my opening paragraph? “I recognize that it morphed into a post-tropical cyclone.” The post-tropical cyclone is what you refer to as a “unique weather phenomenon,” a warm-weather tropical hurricane confronting a cold front. Why not call it what it is, rather than a “Frankenstorm”?

      • Yes, but your argument (multiple times in fact), was that it should have simply been termed “hurricane”. Do you still stand by “But since when did the word ‘hurricane’ prove insufficient to describe a powerful act of weather?”, et al?

        • I do. Words should convey both meaning and accuracy. I noticed at least one meteorologist used “hurricane” up until about an hour before landfall, then shifted to “post-tropical cyclone.” That is the ultimate in accuracy, but perhaps lacks meaning for those of us (yes, that includes me) who only learned the term “post-tropical cyclone” that night. So I think, given the history of other storms we laymen are familiar with–see Hurricanes Katrina and Charlie below, for starters–“hurricane” conveys both meaning and accuracy for most of us. “Superstorm” is a manufactured word, and thus pales on the accuracy meter, because there is no historical context in which to interpret it.

          If you’re parsing my wording (you certainly have a right to do so, particularly since I’m parsing others) you should note this in my conclusion: “Or am I howling at the wind, which even at half the speed predicted by the TV talking heads is still pretty fierce?” I asked that rhetorically, because I know I am howling at the wind. Even if I had actual influence on societal opinion (I’m just an art-committed blogger without that reach) I know that this train is in motion, and has been for a long time. Note also this from the opening of the third paragraph: “We have been doing this for some time…”

          You are defending both where we are now and where we are going. And you will prevail, if only because you have sided with inevitability. But I stand true to what I wish were our future. And I do so using my own name.

          • I’m currently out of the country, and wasn’t following Sandy at all. The use of “Frankenstorm” piqued my interest and caused me to look into it. The resulting news articles were filled with discussion of what exacerbated fears — that Sandy would merge with a winter storm, creating something worse than either. (Google “Frankenstorm” for numerous examples.)

            If you were never aware of that, or only became aware as Sandy made landfall, then you missed out on a key point of interest and concern. That may be attributable to your tendency to see worthless exaggeration in creative usage, rather than to be curious as to what underlies that usage.

  15. I’m curious — at what point do you believe the English language became perfect? At what point would you like to see it frozen? Should we roll it back to Middle English, or Old English? Why not roll it back to proto-Indo-European? Of course, if we did that, every word we spoke would have to have an asterisk in front of it.

    I think you should accept that language changes, and that it’s changing now in exactly the way way that it has changed since the days of the cavemen. If a language stops changing, it dies.

    • Hi egyptsteve, I’ll explain below how you seem to have missed the point of this essay, but first, thank you for a good example of the exaggeration I am seeing in today’s rhetoric, the larger point this essay addresses. I cited an example of how two words have been combined to form a new word that brings no new value, and another word that is losing its impact due to unnecessary modification, and you claim in response I believe our language is perfect? Language evolves, and should.

      I do not adhere to the French model of issuing proclamations against anything that would change what French is. But this issue is less about language and more about what these particular changes in our language mean. Language is a reflection of society. As society changes, language changes to reflect it.

      So I ask you: What conclusions do you draw from this societal obsession with exaggeration?

      • Butting in here…the new value that is added when combining enormous and gigantic is humor. Not to say I’m not irritated by the overuse of words like “massive,” “phenomenal,” “awesome,” etc. because that does continually up the ante and render those words nearly meaningless. But Frankenstorm and ginormous are funny.

        “Frankenstorm” was particularly appropriate because it was the biggest storm in East Coast recorded history (a combination of two storm systems, actually, and combined with a high tide), threatened our most populous city upon which we all depend, and occurred just before Halloween. It was a monster of a storm, and Frankenstorm was the perfect way to describe it, and I got a kick out of it. “Hurricane” simply did not describe this particular storm adequately.

        • Oh, Sue! You know I have tremendous respect for you, and we’ll agree to disagree here.

          I hear “ginormous” used with some frequency, and (other than the commenter who points out its use in the movie Elf, above) I do not always hear it used for humorous effect, but often for dramatic effect. There is a difference between those two. (At least to me.)

          I’m a bit lost on your defense of Frankenstorm. I noticed that, once the storm’s true damage became clear, news agencies by and large dropped the name, perhaps because it was too humorous, and risked making light of the inevitable fatalities. They went instead with “Superstorm,” which suggests heightened size but abandons attempts at levity. I would also guess that survivors of Hurricane Katrina, or Hurricane Charlie (my in-laws hid in their closet while that storm tore the roof off of their Florida house) somehow do not believe that Sandy deserves a more dramatic name than the plain old hurricanes they survived. But perhaps I am mistaken.

          • I have never heard ginormous used in any way but a humorous one, so I’m surprised to hear that it is, especially in a place as sober as WDC. As for Frankenstorm, you are absolutely right that it is no laughing matter, but in the days before we even knew for sure if it was going to materialize as predicted, it seemed a clever name that added a little humor at a time when many of us were ready to scream with frustration over the election coverage. No minimizing of other hurricanes was implied. And yes, at least the media had the good sense to quit using the term when it did turn out to be the “terrible tragedy” that it was. ;-D

  16. I disagree with you on “ginormous.” It’s slang, and as such has the usual utility of slang: if I use it in a sentence, my audience can tell that I am speaking informally and that I belong to a such a group as would use a word like “ginormous”. I would not get such effects out of “gigantic” or “enormous.”

    • Jeff, you raise a good point as to context. I feel, however, I should invite you to travel in some of the D.C. policy circles I often find myself in; the word is gaining traction as a true escalator of “gigantic” and “enormous,” said without irony or attempt at levity or informality.

      I will confess that if you were to get a good doublebock beer or two in me and then record my speech, there would likely be much fodder there to ridicule in a post such as this. But context is key here, methinks.

  17. “Take “unique.” The word means “being without a like or equal.” Yet how often do we hear an interesting individual called “pretty unique,” or a rare item called “very unique”? How can you be degrees of unique?”

    Easy, Patrick. Every single object in the universe is unique: it is itself and nothing else. But although, for instance, every person is unique, Andy Warhol or Mother Teresa are *more* unique than the average person. How can a smart person genuinely not get this?

    • “Every single object in the universe is unique: it is itself and nothing else.” That is an excellent point, Gene, and I cede it.

      But your examples fall into the broader convention of using a modified “unique” as a synonym of special or extraordinary. What is wrong with calling Andy Warhol “special” or Mother Teresa “extraordinary”? I maintain those convey both meaning and accuracy (see my lengthy response to “joke” above. Why dilute the awesome power of a word like “unique” to the point that it falls into slang, such that my teenagers call things “totally unique” when they really mean “totally cool”?

      I admire your intellectual approach, but I think I could have been clearer in my resistance to the manner in which a modified form of “unique” is used most frequently in society.

  18. Patrick, I think you missed my inquiry above about what higher goals you have for language beyond communication, but you have indirectly answered it: meaning and accuracy. I agree that meaning and accuracy are excellent goals for language, of course. Nevertheless, if you do not have your audience’s attention, no communication occurs, no matter how precise your word choice. If no communication occurs, what’s the point? It’s just howling at the wind, as you say. (Which you are clearing not, or there would not be all these comments.)

    The term “hurricane” might not have gotten people’s attention because November regularly brings many hurricanes and most do not require our immediate attention. “Post-tropical cyclone” may have been highly accurate, but, as you pointed out, it was meaningless to the general public. But look at all the attention “Frankenstorm” and “superstorm” are getting, even right here on The Artist’s Road! Success! We have the audience’s attention *and* the general meaning is conveyed, regardless of their education level. No easy feat during a heated election season.

    To return to your question about what it says about our society that we are so exaggeration-prone, I would guess that it reflects the fact that we are saturated with communications. There is so much language competing for our attention that sometimes only “very unique” phrases are going to grab our focus enough to allow any communication to occur.

  19. Super-sizing language is just one of the many ways language has gotten distorted, removed from meaning; adds to the cultural angst; polarizes and distances; . . . Well, I could go on. Thank you, Patrick, for sticking your wording neck out. Obviously has touched many a nerve out here!!!

    • Thank you, Sarah! Yes, it has touched a nerve, it seems. I figured some language lovers would agree with me at least in part, and others would shrug and move on. I’m a bit surprised at how quickly many were to defend the super-sizing, and in some cases doing so anonymously. I know anonymous commenting is common online, but we don’t usually see that here at The Artist’s Road. (Kudos to Sue Mitchell and the few others who provided thought-out responses under their own names.) It’s been interesting!

  20. I vote for playing with words and against getting upset about things that aren’t very important.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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