A reader in Florida has sent, without comment, a column clipped from his local paper. In it, the opinionator blasts the “crutch phrases” and “hyperbole” widely used in the news media. The word coming in for particular derision: extraordinary.
I’m not sure how this reader expected me to respond. But if something is not extraordinary, why is it news? And journalism needs to provide context and perspective. That means that words like “unprecedented” and “historic” have specific, valuable meanings, although they usually benefit from tight framing (e.g., “since World War II” or “since records were first kept in 1869.”)
Extraordinary has two main meanings. Its literal background is “out of” or “outside” (“extracurricular activities” are outside the usual curriculum) plus “ordinary,” meaning “according to the rule.” An “extraordinary city council meeting” may be simply one beyond the usual “every first and third Tuesday,” for instance.
But in its second sense, extraordinary means “highly exceptional” or “remarkable” – newsworthy, in short. In that sense, an extraordinary city council meeting may be one that breaks down into fisticuffs.
Note something about the pronunciation: The two vowels together, “ao,” are unusual in English. If you want to convey the word’s literal background, you’re likely to say “extra ordinary,” with what phoneticians call a “glottal stop,” like that little tap of the vocal brakes at the front of each syllable of “uh-oh,” for instance, if that’s what you say when you get to the supermarket and realize you’ve left your shopping list at home.
The more energized extraordinary (the fisticuffs one), however, is pronounced more forcefully, with the second and third syllables smashed together into one long vowel: ex-TRORD-inary. People tend to say it as if they think it’s spelled with a “roar” in the middle.
Sometimes words that start out pretty ferocious-sounding (awfully, terribly, etc.) get used as all-purpose intensifiers to the point where they lose all ferocity: “That’s awfully kind of you, sir.”
When a young man reports that he’s met his fiancée’s family “and they’re all insane,” for instance, you can’t be sure whether he wants his ring back, or just means “They’re all so insanely warm and inclusive.” Not that I could tell you what exactly “insanely warm and inclusive” would mean.
The sense development of extraordinary, however, seems to have gone in the other direction, from merely “unusual” to “highly exceptional.” It still doesn’t mean “unique in all human history,” though, which may be the standard our irate opinionator was holding out for.
I’m surprised to hear myself come down on the side of a cliché, but sometimes set phrases get “set” for a reason. When they’re looking to signal that “attention must be paid,” journalists can do worse than extraordinary.