Stan Carey of the Macmillan Dictionary recently wrote a short blog about language inflation, which ultimately creates devaluation in meaning. Today, popular expressions like epic and brilliant are used to express a more modest meaning than their traditional uses. Brilliant actually means clever, and epic actually means surprising.
Carey explains, “Such is our need to imbue our words with force and significance, that we use hyperbole to entice people to pay attention – and the hyperbolic terms gradually normalise.”
The same tendency can be seen in numbers as well. Once giving 110% became cliché, people started insisting that they give 210%, 310%, and on and on. To create even more force behind the phrase, people will also throw in a literally. I literally gave 210%. That’s not numerically possible, of course. What the speaker really means is I worked very hard.
This is no new trend. My generation destroyed words like awesome and totally. My parents and grandparents robbed of meaning words like incredible, wonderful, and fantastic.
C.S. Lewis even warned against language inflation: “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say infinitely when you mean very; otherwise, you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”
And this is precisely where we find ourselves right now. We have no words left when we want to say that something truly is awe-inspiring or full of wonder.
This language inflation causes problems not only for speakers and writers, but for readers as well. Robbing words of their true meaning and force makes it all the more difficult for modern readers to connect with older books.
Odysseus had an epic adventure, which means more than just out of the ordinary, and he encountered fantastic creatures, which were more than pretty cool.
Language inflation particularly cheapens our understanding of the Scriptures. Jesus Christ is called wonderful. He is truly full of wonder. The Lord God is awesome. These words have powerful meanings that a modern reader can’t instantly grasp.
As a child of the 80s I was always uncomfortable calling God awesome like my Christian friends did because I knew that they meant something much less by the use of that word than was fitting to God. If my sunglasses are totally awesome, I need some other word for God!
What’s even more disturbing to me is the trend to use negative words positively. In the 80s, bad was good. Two decades later sick was even better.
I suspect that this trend is more than just sloppiness with words. I suspect that this is really a worldview issue as our culture retreats more and more away from Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. We’ve long preferred ugliness to beauty culturally; it makes sense that our language would reflect that as well. That’s the only way that I can understand how calling something sick is a compliment.
Our souls starve and atrophy in the current culture. We neglect the spiritual aspects of our own being more and more. It makes sense that the language would reflect that as well. Caring primarily for our physical needs, we run across fewer and fewer moments that inspire us with true awe or fill us wonder. Those emotions would require an encounter with the sublime and the time to contemplate it.
Who’s got the time or the desire for that? We’ll settle for pretty good experiences and call them totally awesome.