In a capitalist society such as America’s, marketing is an inescapable fact of life. We are forever bombarded by messages asking us to consider some product that is better, faster, stronger, and less expensive than every other product available. In an effort to get our attention, marketers are forced to find new words with which to communicate the awesomeness of whatever they are selling.
A product cannot be merely good if it hopes to grab our dollars; it must be wonderful. The next product cannot simply be wonderful; it must be fantastic! with an exclamation point.
This wouldn’t bother me so much—since I do love good capitalism—if the linguistic trend toward more exciting words (I call it superlative inflation) were limited to advertising. However, since so much of the language we are exposed to is delivered by advertising, it is affecting our own language, and this must stop.
I heard someone mention a book the other day, and the person to whom she was speaking said, “I hear that’s a phenomenal book.” Less than thirty minutes later, she was talking about a phenomenal sandwich she had for lunch.
I haven’t read the book and I didn’t taste the sandwich, so for all I know, both the book and sandwich were phenomenal, but I sincerely doubt it! This need we have to keep reaching for more and more powerful words, while admirable on one level, is annoying on another. Yes, I love it when people seek new, descriptive language, but yes, I also find it annoying when people latch onto certain words and use them so much that they lose their meaning.
There is nothing wrong with saying a sandwich was very good. Or delicious, even. A book can also be very good. Can we please save words like phenomenal for those books and sandwiches that truly deserve the description? Watch your own writing very carefully for this kind of superlative inflation. Do you have pet words you use too often, when other, less infomercial-sounding language would be sufficient?
If you’re remembering your high-school English teacher’s telling you to avoid words like good and bad in your formal writing, she and I are both proud of you. It is probably best if you use a stronger, more specific word. My suggestion, then, is to be specific in your descriptions. If you’ve heard that a book is very good, what specifically have you heard? You could write something like, “I hear that book is engrossing,” or “I hear the characters are instantly likable.” If you had a yummy sandwich, you could write something about how fresh the ingredients tasted, or how the flavor combination was just what you were hoping for.
A word like awesome, which really means inspiring fear, dread, or wonder, should be powerful enough when used correctly. However, it has been cheapened so that it just means good. Now, when someone means to say that something really was awesome, he or she is forced to say something like, “It was literally awesome.” This should not be happening. Let’s keep an eye on our excited language and do our best to communicate what we really mean.