Professor Leland Yeager of Auburn University, a good friend of this column – and this column needs good friends – writes to issue a warning about “incredible” and “incredibly.” His evidence indicates, however, that the warning may have arrived too late. The problem has already become, shall we say, incredibly serious. Professor Yeager has found someone who describes an excursion to Lake Tahoe in the following way: “The whole trip was incredible, but Emerald Bay was incredibly incredible.”
Well, maybe so. “Incredible” means “impossible to credit; incapable ofbelie£” Maybe ifI took a trip up to Tahoe I would see something that staggered my own imagination, something
I saw but could not believe. It might be a parking lot for flying saucers. Or a comedy club staffed by talent from the Ayn Rand Institute. Or the Lake Tahoe Monster. Surely the second-deepest lake in the United States must have a monster in it someplace.
But I’m pretty certain that’s not what the author of “incredibly incredible” had in mind. As Professor Yeager comments, “‘Incredibly’ is usually just a pretentious way of saying ‘very’: ‘Incredible,’ the adjective, usually means something like ‘possessing a high degree of whatever quality I’d have in mind ifI bothered to figure out just what I wanted to say.’ The reader or listener is expected to figure out just what the message is. The adjective and adverb are vague intensifiers.”
I agree with everything he says, except for one thing. I would call such adjectives and adverbs random intensifiers. From the list of hot-sounding words, you just grab the first ones that come to mind, and from there on it’s all just so incredibly awesome. Definitely. Every modifier is just one more word that could easily be replaced by something equally … appropriate. Compared with such words, “vague” expressions are tediously specific.
Yet the random intensifiers do have one specific effect: they sever any association with value judgments, at least as these are traditionally understood. “Incredible” and “awesome” aren’t terms of value. Something that’s “incredible” or “awesome”
could be good or bad; the words are about the person who comes up with them, not about the object under discussion. The speaker (or, God help us, the writer) is awestruck at the sight of Lake Tahoe, a sight that gives him or her an amazing, incredible feeling. What’s avoided is any assessment of the thing itself. The lake isn’t lovely, beautiful picturesque. Those words have too many stodgy old associations. A beautiful lake … a lake like a landscape by Corot, a lake like Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, a lake reminiscent of that crucial passage in Watteau’s “Embarkation” … Ah yes. Such words as beautiful must be avoided. They intimidate the ignorant and the insecure. Besides, they lead us too far from the speaker’s momentary feelings. That can’t be good for the speaker’s self-esteem.
Random intensifiers short-circuit traditional assessments, interests, expectations, processes of comparative evaluation; in so doing, they destroy the possibility of any serious or thoughtful response, even to themselves. You think of a follow-up to “Emerald Bay was incredibly incredible.” Go ahead; try. But the rhetorical effect can be very useful. If you want to monopolize the conversation, just keep talking that way.
You know people who always seem to think they’re on the radio. They cannot tolerate dead air. They can’t put up with any pauses, interjections, or unprogrammed remarks. Their patter must be brisk and constant. To prevent any distracting interruptions, they connect every outburst of real words with the musilage of “OK?”, “y’know?”, “I mean,” “you hear what I’m sayin’?”, and other random word-fill. When all else fails, they provide a steady stream of “uhs.”
The same insecurity about the efficacy of the words one uses, the same well supported doubt about whether anyone else is paying any attention, the same unwillingness to attract attention by saying things that might actually be interesting, appears in writing loaded with the verbal stutters about which Professor Yeager complains. He mentions “incredible” and “incredible’s” homely cousin, “unbelievable”; and “unbelievable” has many accomplices, even in “formal” writing. How many words in the following sentence, which would be at home in virtually any political speech or op-ed essay, are anything more than pretentious forms of “uh”?: “I find it simply unbelievable, and totally unacceptable, that preschool education is not fully available to every single child of preschool age in America”?
Every expression in italics is a random intensifier. Every expression in italics is word-fill. Junk.
There’s worse. Just as no celebrity feels secure without his bodyguard, so no string of random intensifiers is thought to
be secure without some big dumb word like “literally.” If you listen to the stories that “literally” tells, this bodyguard has had many truly amazing and awesome adventures: “She literally bit my head off.” “He was literally hung out to dry.” “My boss was crawling all over me -literally!” But, sad to say, some bodyguards aren’t everything they claim to be. Beneath the black leather jacket and the prison-issue pecs may lurk the heart of a dandelion. If “literally’s” employers understood what the word means – actually, truly, non-metaphorically – then ‘literally” would be out of a job.
There are other random intensifiers, currently clogging the spoken language, that are almost too horrible to mention. During most of the past decade,”Will and Grace” has been satirizing two things: the “Lifetime Channel” and the expression “oh my God!” (as in, “I wanteda buy it but oh my God it wuz really really expensive!”). The result is that reruns of “Will and Grace” are now being shown on the “Lifetime Channel” and “oh my God!” has become a chronic illness of American speech.
Can it be long before this random intensifier follows the road well-traveled and becomes part of the written language? Can it be long before Harry Reid writes an op-ed in which he says that “the Congress” (have you ever noticed how pompous people use “the” before “Congress,” as if there were some confusion about which Congress they had in mind?) “has really and truly tried to compromise with the President but oh my God,
it’s so incredible, but he’s still literally wedded to this unbelievable budget”? Can it be long before Mrs. Clinton’s press agent releases a statement reporting that “the senator finds it literally unbelievable and oh my God, totally unacceptable, that there’s really just so little money devoted to the public schools in this totally great country of ours”? Of course, she might have something there . . . bringing up the public schools …