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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Calm down. It's only: 1) some snow; 2) a comedy film and; 3) a songwriter

1. This morning the BBC news said that the snow was "creating havoc" all over the country.
2. Last night somebody said to me that the Will Ferrell movie "Anchorman" was "brilliant".
3. Last week on Desert Island Discs David Tennant said Elvis Costello was "one of the all-time great musicians".

Seems to me these are all examples of qualitative inflation. Now I'm sure with 1) there were a number of people who were badly inconvenienced, others who were caused real distress and then lots of people who carried on as usual, battling "the havoc" by changing their footwear.

As far as 2) is concerned, if you do think "Anchorman" is funny then it's unlikely to be by some distance your favourite funny film. If there are, say, twenty films that are funnier than "Anchorman", then the adjective "brilliant" is unlikely to be the appropriate one.

And then there's 3). I admire Elvis Costello, as do many people, but I think it's pushing it to call him "one of the all-time great musicians". Where do you put him in relation to Sydney Bechet, Burt Bacharach, Bach, Brahms, Beethoven and the Beatles, to scratch only the surface of just one letter of the alphabet? And the first one to point out that such praise does him no favours whatsoever would be Elvis Costello.

In all three cases, the appropriate expressions - "causing problems", "really funny" and "very talented", respectively - wouldn't be enough to communicate what the speaker wanted to put over. Whose fault is that? All the over-claimers who went before. So remember, the expression of excessive approval doesn't just affect you. It also spoils it for the next person to come along.


  1. "Brilliant" is grossly over-used by the press, especially when talking about themselves: "our brilliant new section..." The front page of The Observer this week, used it to describe a young actress.

    I was taught that it should mostly be used when referring to something that's very bright.

    Can you tell that it's a personal bete noire?

  2. I considered watching BBC 1's 'Big Freeze Special' to see what all the fuss is about, but couldn't face the prospect of all that whingeing. There's just a light dusting of snow where we are.

    Don't get Will Ferrell at all and Elvis is fine so long as he keeps away from the country and western.

  3. I was driving around London today, yep, perfectly possible, and was hugely frustrated by talk radio or news station which only talked about the snow. There isn't a huge amount to say. It's snowing! Do they sit in the studios going "Find me more snow stories now!"

  4. Aye, escalating hyperbole. It's "literally" everywhere!

    The ones that currently irk me are "brave" and "heroic" when used in football commentary or reporting. If these words are appropriate, then which ones do we use when talking about someone that has, for example, risked their life in the theatre of war?

  5. I was discussing football in an idle moment at work the other day with a Liverpool supporter who described Fernando Torres as a "genius", rather than "one of the best strikers in Europe". But that's Scousers for you.

  6. Err ... Awesome!!?

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  8. the one that frustrates me is "decimate". It is used by people to mean completely defeated or destroyed or damaged beyond repair.
    It actually means "reduced by one tenth". Apparantly the Romans used to punish legions by lining up the men and killing every tenth soldier.

  9. Maybe when the legions saw every tenth person killed in front of them they were completely defeated or damaged beyond repair?

  10. Completely agree with the central thrust of this blog, but Elvis Costello is better than Bechet, Bacharach, Bach, Brahms, Beethoven and even the Beatles. At least he was during what you once described on a Word podcast as his "3 year golden period".

    That may well be over-claiming, but it's my opinion, backed-up by the number of times the above artists has featured on my turntable.

  11. Anchorman is "really funny", but what makes it brilliant is that it's almost all improvised. In my opinion, there are maybe only a handful of films that are funnier - and those were all made by, or star, Christopher Guest.

  12. "Brilliant" always sounds like something an over excited teenager would say.

    Though "Anchorman" is very, very, very funny on the level of a "Blazing Saddles" or "Airplane" so I may have used that adjective to describe it myself.

  13. I always thought Elvis would have made a pretty good music journalist, based on the liner notes for all his cd reissues.

  14. Phil Brown (Hull City's Manager)recently claimed his players were "a million percent behind him"! Where do you go after a million percent?