A Case for Less Superlatives

The trend in everyday conversation is to use grandiose words. “Outstanding” is the new “good,” “amazing!” is the new “OK,” and “huge!” is the new “big.”

I was in a restaurant in D.C. last weekend and everything I asked was answered in superlatives.

Me: How’s the salmon?

Server: Fantastic!!

Me: Does it come with rice?

Server: Absolutely!!

Would a “good” and a “yes” have been sufficient? Undeniably!

At Starbucks, the smallest coffee you can order is a Tall. Tall would seem to indicate that there was also a short and medium, with Tall being the largest. But at Starbucks, Tall is small. Grande, which is both Italian and Spanish for large, is medium.

Likewise, at your local 7-Eleven you cannot buy a small: Your choices are Big Gulp, Super Big Gulp, and Extremely Big Gulp. OldBanana-NavyGap also did away with the small. You cannot buy anything from the chain stores that is really a “small.” My father is an average-sized man. He hasn’t gained weight (or height, for that matter) for the past 30 years. Ergo, his size remains the same. But in the same amount of time, his T-shirt size has gone from small/medium to medium to large to extra large.

Upon reflection, the reason for all this colossal-speak is clear: We are bored with our fantastic, wonderful lives. We want the next-next thing now. Now!

And we also want others to think that we still care, that we can still be delighted, that we know that everything is just great. Even when deep inside we know it can’t be. Everything can’t be great. Hence, we live in a world where extreme is ordinary, where radical is quotidian; exceptional is pedestrian. And to not be overly delighted by the mundane is appalling. It’s horrific. And, Dude, that’s heinous.

I’m no scientist, and my methods of proof leave a little to be desired, or a lot to be desired, or an immensity. And to be honest, I guess I’d rather live in a world where people were overly excited than depressed.

But listen to the voices around you. Listen to your own voice. There is nothing on the news that is good or bad, only things that are wonderful or devastating. Even the weather is either beautiful or horrible.

Listen the next time someone asks you something and you agree, because when you could simply say “yes,” instead you will say “absolutely” or “without doubt” or “oh, yeah, unquestionably–absolutely without doubt.”

Have people forgotten what it’s like to be OK? Simply OK with what they have and who they are?

If everything is outstanding, if everything is the most amazing thing ever, is anything ever amazing at all?

From The Brooklyn Rail (Jan./Feb. 2002), a bimonthly alternative tabloid covering arts and politics in New York City

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