Americans have become addicted to superlatives. We seem to need our regular “hyperbole fixes” as if to validate our own existence. This national syndrome becomes most egregious during the run-up to the “Super Bowl,” a football game that more often than not turns out to be the “ho-hum” bowl.
But to the attuned ear, this pumped-up hype routinely infects most of our conversations. This exaggeration is not the exclusive province of the magpies of sports talk. In a broader sense, some of these embellishments carry with them a subtle but undeniable element of dishonesty.
The news media is perhaps most culpable in promoting our obsession with overstatement. Consider last November’s midterm elections. Television’s political pundits portrayed the results as a “landslide victory” for Republicans and a rejection of President Obama. While it’s true that the GOP picked up 63 seats, the “massive win” becomes a slim plurality when you crunch the numbers.
Michael McDonald, a professor of politics at Virginia’s George Mason University, found that only 41 percent of eligible voters even bothered to vote in the so-called GOP landslide. And within that 41 percent, the margin of victory for House Republicans in the national popular vote was about 7 percent. Still, the media acted as though America had become a tea party nation. In reality, more Americans identify as Democrats (31 percent) than Republicans (29 percent), according to a recent Gallup survey.
Facts stand on their own
Distortions like this tend to be at their most shameful during triumphs and tragedies, precisely when facts and events should be able to stand on their own without being propped up by the banalities of those paid to read a TV teleprompter.
Such silly media pronouncements are so common that few of us even notice them as they float off into the ether. Yet such hyperbole is not just pompous; it also reveals considerable ignorance. My former colleague’s remark marginalized not just the billion or so Protestants and Eastern Orthodox adherents who don’t follow orders from Rome but also the 4 billion Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and others who don’t consider the pontiff worthy of such adulation and veneration.
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.
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.