The Problem of Totally Epic Language Inflation

Apr 27, 2012
Stan Carey of the Macmillan Dictionary recently wrote a short blog about language inflation, which ultimately creates devaluation in meaning. Today, popular expressions like epic and brilliant are used to express a more modest meaning than their traditional uses. Brilliant actually means clever, and epic actually means surprising. Carey explains, “Such is our need to imbue our words with force and significance, that we use hyperbole to entice people to pay attention – and the hyperbolic terms gradually normalise.” The same tendency can be seen in numbers as well. Once giving 110% became cliché, people started insisting that they give 210%, 310%, and on and on. To create even more force behind the phrase, people will also throw in a literally. I literally gave 210%. That’s not numerically possible, of course. What the speaker really means is I worked very hard. This is no new trend. My generation destroyed words like awesome and totally. My parents and grandparents robbed of meaning words like incredible, wonderful, and fantastic. C.S. Lewis even warned against language inflation: "Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say infinitely when you mean very; otherwise, you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite." And this is precisely where we find ourselves right now. We have no words left when we want to say that something truly is awe-inspiring or full of wonder. This language inflation causes problems not only for speakers and writers, but for readers as well. Robbing words of their true meaning and force makes it all the more difficult for modern readers to connect with older books. Odysseus had an epic adventure, which means more than just out of the ordinary, and he encountered fantastic creatures, which were more than pretty cool. Language inflation particularly cheapens our understanding of the Scriptures. Jesus Christ is called wonderful. He is truly full of wonder. The Lord God is awesome. These words have powerful meanings that a modern reader can’t instantly grasp. As a child of the 80s I was always uncomfortable calling God awesome like my Christian friends did because I knew that they meant something much less by the use of that word than was fitting to God. If my sunglasses are totally awesome, I need some other word for God! What’s even more disturbing to me is the trend to use negative words positively. In the 80s, bad was good. Two decades later sick was even better. I suspect that this trend is more than just sloppiness with words. I suspect that this is really a worldview issue as our culture retreats more and more away from Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  We’ve long preferred ugliness to beauty culturally; it makes sense that our language would reflect that as well. That’s the only way that I can understand how calling something sick is a compliment. Our souls starve and atrophy in the current culture. We neglect the spiritual aspects of our own being more and more. It makes sense that the language would reflect that as well. Caring primarily for our physical needs, we run across fewer and fewer moments that inspire us with true awe or fill us wonder.  Those emotions would require an encounter with the sublime and the time to contemplate it. Who’s got the time or the desire for that? We’ll settle for pretty good experiences and call them totally awesome.
Angelina Stanford

Angelina Stanford

Angelina Stanford has an MA in English literature from the University of Louisiana, graduating Phi Kappa Phi, and has taught in various Christian classical classrooms for over 20 years.  She is currently teaching the Great Books online to high school students at the Harvey Center for Family Learning and recently joined the online faculty of the Circe Academy.  She’s also the co-star of the popular Circe podcast “Close Reads.”  She has a particular interest in myths, fairy tales, and understanding literature through the study of mythological archetypes and biblical typologies—as well as a mild obsession with the influence of Celtic fairy stories and Celtic Christianity on the development of British literature.  She also has a more than mild obsession with Wendell Berry.​​

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I agree with you to a certain extent but I also think languages are living things and have been changing or morphing since the beginning. This is one reason why English can be so expressive; it's willingness to adopt new words, change words, create words. There is a fluidity to it that other language don't have. And some of slang doesn't last. No one says groovy anymore, except to be tongue in cheek. In fact, it now lends a different shade of meaning when it is used. I have a feeling that calling things 'sick' as a term of admiration will fade on its own.

There is always a tension between those who want languages to be rational, controllable things because clarity in language is of such basic importance to human existence. And language is very rational as it is built on patterns and rules. But language is also a spontaneous thing that is forever shifting and modifying itself. Too much control stifles it. Somewhere I remember reading that the French back in the 18th or 19th century got very worked up about the purity of French and set up a committee to approve or disapprove words and usage. As a result French vocabulary didn't expand. So I guess I'd rather have the freedom to play with the language and let it reflect the culture of the people who speak it then bind it with rigid rules and disapproval of changes.

The trick, as with many things, is to strike a balance between clarity and creativity.

Very good article Angelina. I must admit that I am guilty of language inflation in my own speech. I appreciated your thoughts on language inflation being a worldview problem. That's some food for thought.