Thursday, 11 February 2016

super dooper

Anyone wanting to learn English nowadays has access to huge online resources to help them to achieve their goal. These range from formal courses offered by world-renowned academic institutions to ad hoc offerings by individuals keen to gain a foothold in what must be quite a lucrative market.

I came across an example of the latter a few days ago that I immediately labelled a cause for concern. To introduce his readers/followers to the concept of synonyms—words with more or less the same meaning—the author provided the following examples: amazing, incredible, awesome, phenomenal, together with suggestions for how these words might be used:
The movie was awesome! The actors were amazing, and the cinematography was phenomenal. [italics added]
I’ve never seen a movie that filled me with awe; I’ve never watched the performance of any actor in any role with amazement; and I’d always thought that a phenomenon was an event, not something abstract like cinematography. However, I’m not suggesting that any of this is incorrect. The truly depressing aspect of this example is that the author is correct, because this is how most people use these words nowadays. Nevertheless, the four quoted ‘synonyms’ are merely what I call ‘+1 adjectives’, a convenient shorthand for ‘I like this’ accompanied by total ignorance of the original meaning of the word(s) being used.

This is not a new trend. To earlier generations, fabulous had nothing to do with fables; marvellous was not used to describe something that one marvelled at; and fantastic no longer referred to something out of a fantasy. These were the +1 adjectives of their day, and herein lies the cause for concern.

Even though very few people would now say “The movie was fabulous! The actors were marvellous, and the cinematography was fantastic”, these adjectives have not reverted to their original meanings, as one might have hoped, but are well on the way to becoming archaisms, words that are no longer widely used.

Eventually, the vogue +1 adjectives of today will also end up on the scrapheap, to be replaced by a new set of words to express approval. And as with the earlier example, the words thus replaced will not revert to their original meaning. As someone who rues this blatant debasement of my native language, I accept that I cannot do anything to counteract the trend, but I can make a few suggestions regarding the new +1 adjectives that might be used by the next generation:
The movie was miraculous! The actors were deceptive, and the cinematography was illusory.


  1. I thought your native language was Cumbrian! Sorry no film has ever filled you with awe. On language, it is organic so changes all the time but I agree it can be annoying. Examples: presently used for at present rather than soon, and the ghastly new use of the noun reference as a verb; we always used to make reference to or refer to. However, the great strength of English is its adaptability

    1. Your gripe about reference being used as a noun reminds me of my time on the Cumbria Police Authority, where to action a recommendation or to progress a report were routine activities!

      And while I agree with you about the adaptability of English—it is a mongrel language, after all—there are limits. Each time a word is wrenched from its original meaning, if there is no close synonym to cover the hole, then the language has failed to adapt.

  2. The most irritating adjective nowadays is surely "fucking", which is used merely as an intensifier, to indicate strong feelings, with no actual meaning at all. I recently found a website called "I fucking love science", which I suppose was produced by some nitwit in the hope of appealing to teenagers. I found this most depressing, since the scientific content was quite good.

    1. It seems to me that the website should have called itself ‘I love fucking science’, but placing the intensifier where it has is probably how people speak nowadays.


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