The Super Bowl just aggravates our addiction to hyperbole
The Jets are out, the Steelers are in. The Green Bay Packers ousted the Chicago Bears. And now we'll be subjected to weeks of adrenaline-pumping adjectives – a trend that has spread to politics and media, corroding our discourse.
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Perhaps just as embarrassing amid this verbal extravagance was the failure to note the significant Catholic dissent over his legacy. Many Roman Catholic clerics, including Jesuits, had been quite critical of John Paul II; some were privately relieved his time at the helm was up.Skip to next paragraph
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Overused words become meaningless
“Great” and “awesome” are other examples of overused words that have become almost meaningless. Earthquakes, tsunamis, and tornados bearing down on you are awesome. Bone-crunching NFL football tackles and films like “Avatar” are not. “Awesome” is so overused it can now be rendered to mean “rather ordinary.”
“Tragedy” has become another nearly meaningless word. It used to be reserved for events of mass casualties and deep suffering. Now it’s applied to stories ranging from lost puppies to quarterly earnings reports. The adage (attributed to Stalin) comes to mind: “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.”
The real tragedy is the demise of intelligent self-expression, a consequence of our shriveling vocabularies.
Well may we cringe listening to contemporary blather, especially superlatives like “unbelievable,” which should properly be used to describe politicians.
Sometimes this national obsession with superlatives does a genuine disservice. Wherever did we get the idea that everyone who serves in the military is a hero? Heroism demands an act of valor.
A retired US Navy captain I know put it best: “Heroes are selfless warriors who risk their lives and often give their lives so others may live. There are plenty of warriors and wannabes, but very few genuine heroes.”
Do as the British (sometime) do
If Americans insist on anointing themselves with superlatives, they should at least strive to imitate the British, who are the true masters of exaggeration.
The late historian Barbara Tuchman was spot on: “No nation has ever produced a military history of such verbal nobility as the British.... There is no shrinking from superlatives.... Everyone is splendid: soldiers are staunch, commanders cool, the fighting magnificent.”
Years later Ms. Tuchman told me nothing she ever wrote received such an overwhelmingly favorable response as that passage.
But rather than imitating British hyperbole, Americans would do well to master the art of understatement and dry wit, the other speaking technique at which the British excel.
“How did you find America?” Lennon was asked.
“Turn left at Greenland,” he replied.
Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.