Inflation of the American Superlative

Tribal Child
July 9, 2014
To be, they say
July 30, 2014

Few things are more American than apple pie. But if there were one, it would be the ubiquitous car dealership.

I had the distinct privilege of touring a few of these classic dealerships of late, and while I narrowly avoided eye contact with most salesmen, I did find myself grinning at the titles for car models and their amenities.

In one example, a Volkswagen was touted as “super-premium.” With a sticky grin, a nearby car-hawker cheerfully explained that I had the option to upgrade to “super-premium-plus” or, for that matter, the clearly superior “ultimate.” It boggles the mind to think there was something beyond “ultimate,” but there was, as there needed to be, since Volkswagen had decided to begin their car lines with “premium”—the basic model.

There is something terrifying in this inflation of positives, comparatives, and superlatives. It is driven, in part, by the American obsession with “the best.” We have quickly learned, however, that in consumer-driven culture, marketing something better than “the best” will do you one … better. And what is better than best? Super-premium, I suppose.

A heavy downside of this upward shift is that we cease to see “good” as anything very good at all. If “premium” is basic, it has become our starting point. Good is “less-than.”

Superlative inflation doesn’t begin and end at car dealerships, of course. Since they are driven by commercial culture and the advertising that follows it, superlatives appear in the most absurd places. In one instance, an online blogger waxes comical about “Extreme Cat Litter”:

“Am I just a grumpy bastard for thinking ‘Mighty Fine Cat Litter’ would be good enough? What’s the next step? ‘Extremest Cat Litter’?”

Our clothing sizes also appear to be inflating, and not entirely because of our weight. As a country, we have gone from simple categories like small, medium, and large, to extra-smalls and extra-extra-extra-larges. We’re not even creative enough to use new and ever more powerful superlatives; we just add “extra” to kick the size up a notch or two.

It’s been an unfortunate truth of American English that superlatives have been demoted. Instead of adjusting the meaning of our positives (small), comparatives (smaller), and superlatives (smallest) to fit our waistlines, cars, and job offers, we have instead downgraded superlatives to comparatives, heaping them on each other as though the more we use, the stronger the meaning.

Id est: this comment came from a Reddit user as an aside to online discussion: “I dislike when people say ‘the greatest __ of all time’. Of all time? Really? All time covers the past, present, and future. So is it literally so good that nothing in the future can possibly be better? No. STFU.”

We’ve even taken to using superlatives in opinions and generalities, such as in these radio ad examples: “The best tasting sausages in town!” According to whom? Or, “The best-priced sausages in town!” Judged how—by quantity, weight, or set against the same sausages produced elsewhere in the same metropolitan area?

It’s also been pointed out that the constant use of superlatives in advertising makes objective comparison impossible. If every shampoo is the “best for your hair,” then “best” loses any sense of superlative meaning, and simply becomes “good.” Not only that, but all products start to sound like they’re of the same quality—as far as advertising illustrates.

This connects with a recent cultural conversation centered on the word “awesome.” It’s not a new discussion, certainly, but the idea is apropos. Everything these days is “awesome”—my coffee, the tattoo you just got, the dust bunny that, OMG, actually looks like a bunny. But the original meaning of “awesome” was far too powerful to be used so nonchalantly in everyday life. A Wiktionary definition offers this insight:

“The oldest meaning of ‘awesome’ is ‘something which inspires awe,’ but the word is also a common slang expression in English, originally from America. As the original meaning of awesome has become somewhat antiquated in general use, the term awe-inspiring is now generally used for the same meaning.”

If we give Merriam-Webster the final word on American superlatives, then we’ll end up giggling over the deep irony it suggests. The revered dictionary’s secondary definition of “superlative” reads: “a :  surpassing all others :  supreme ; b :  of very high quality :  excellent <superlative work>.” It’s quickly followed by the tertiary definition: “excessive, exaggerated.”

Nothing is more American than jibe by irony, especially when the irony is lost on those it mocks. Yes, that kind of irony is more American than even the best, tastiest, largest, juiciest, extremest apple pie.

But if you’re worried that this is the end of superlative English, rest easy. Google—that noble law-keeper of the Internet—has struck down flagrant use of the superlative in its omnipresent advertising:

“Google doesn’t allow ad text that contains superlatives such as “best” or “#1” (and all other variations of the number 1), unless there’s verification by a third party clearly displayed on the ad’s website. Third-party verification must come from someone or some group unrelated to the site. Customer testimonials don’t qualify as third-party verification.”

Thankfully, English is kept pristine by the Net’s foremost patron of emoticons. Thankest be to God.

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