Friday, 24 January 2014

Reality Check

My grandsons can be drama queens. When told they are not allowed to do X at any given time (even if maybe it's not a banned thing, and they can do it later) they can be heard to emote "I'm never, ever, ever going to be able to....." (with the back of the hand to the brow, sorta deal). Words like "never" are often tossed around by small children, for whom an hour's wait is an awfully long time.

But when you grow up you learn the real meanings of words, and the reality of life's events and possibilities, so that sort of thing doesn't happen anymore.

Yeah, right.

I was explaining to Tom yesterday the meaning of hyperbole. He loves to collects long words, and has an awesome vocabulary for a young man yet to have any tertiary education, but that one hadn't arisen before. He loves it. He says it also explains a lot. He has had to work hard at understanding this sort of thing.

But the whole value of hyperbole lies in the fact that everyone knows it's hyperbole. It's not supposed to be taken literally. If I say I could eat a horse, I don't expect anyone to stand and watch me carve one up. Only the very youngest Aspie would get that one wrong.

So why is it, please tell me, that normal, intelligent adults can be constantly heard to use words like "impossible", and "never" when it's absolute rubbish?

It's not even in throwaway speech. It's in writing. There are others:

"I can guarantee..." (No, you can't)
"There will always be..." (Really? Even after the Sun swallows up the solar system?)
"It was the last time..." (Another one you can't guarantee)


"It was the very last time" (What is the last time if it's not the very last time?)

Then there's words that do not mean what you think they mean. Used for effect but wrongly like decimate and apocalypse. But the one that's currently doing the rounds is:

"They literally took the roof off with the volume". No. They didn't. You mean figuratively.

And if I hear the word "finite" used wrongly one more time I'm going to eat my hat (q.v. hyperbole).

Now, I am not suggesting that we pick apart all written statements in the way a lawyer would. Apart from anything else it would make things terribly dull. English is rich with metaphor and simile, and that's why it's so much fun. But I think a little caution could be applied.

Instead of never, consider "rarely", "unlikely",  or "not on my watch", possibly.
Instead of impossible, try "extremely difficult", or "cost prohibitive".



  1. I can guarantee that this will cause your head to spin ‘round like Linda Blair’s. There will always be an England and living on English soil will be the Brits. You can take the Brit out of England but you can’t take the England out of a Brit. I realize that to a Brit, we Canucks decimate the English language on an apocalyptic scale. Butchering English so as to cause any self-respecting Brit to blow a gasket or literally raise the roof with their ire.

    OH MAN...YOU SO SET YOURSELF UP. Thank you for bringing a little sunshine into my, otherwise, dull day.



    2. ROFLMAO!!!! I'm a "clouted bat-fowling maggot-pie".

  2. I often catch myself re-reading something I wrote and adding qualifying terms. Because. And speaking of hyperbole....have you met hyperbole-and-a-half?

    1. I looked it up. Interesting but a bit hard for me to relate to.