Hurricane Sandy has come and gone, and I sit here in Alexandria, Virginia, once again marveling at our collective ability to over-hype. I don’t mean to play down the impact of this storm, just because I never saw the high winds and tree losses the experts had predicted for my area; plenty of folks on the Jersey shore, lower Manhattan and Long Island, West Virginia and elsewhere experienced historic devastation. But since when did the word “hurricane” prove insufficient to describe a powerful act of weather? I recognize that it morphed into a post-tropical cyclone. But why does it have to be a “Superstorm?” Or, Heaven forbid, a “Frankenstorm?”
I’d blame this verbal escalation on the 24-hour news channels that provide us 24 minutes of news recycled all day, but they are too easy a target. We viewers adopt those over-hyped labels. Here in northern Virginia two years ago I survived a “Snowpocalypse.” I’m pretty sure the end of the world is going to involve more than 18 inches of snow and a few airport closures. Folks in L.A. have twice now been told that the temporary closing of a freeway would lead to “Carmageddon.” The final battle of good and evil, played out over cars? Oh Lord, I feel another Transformers movie coming on.
We have been doing this for some time, taking words that already encompass significant scale or impact–like “hurricane”–and modifying or replacing them with no good reason. Take “unique.” The word means “being without a like or equal.” Yet how often do we hear an interesting individual called “pretty unique,” or a rare item called “very unique”? How can you be degrees of unique? Why do we feel the need to insert a modifier in front of an absolute?
But I haven’t mentioned yet the nails-on-a-blackboard abomination that has permeated popular culture and, I fear, could find its way into permanent usage. Tell, me, honestly, why do we need the word “ginormous”? With “gigantic” we “are exceeding the usual or expected,” and with “enormous” we are “marked by extraordinarily great size, number, or degree.” I have yet to hear anything referred to as “ginormous” that could not have been fully described with one of these two words. This word inflation is a gigantic cultural problem, and its implications are enormous.
But perhaps this goes far deeper than simply word choice. We inflate the importance of individuals (I’m sorry, I care about Tom Cruise’s marital challenges why again?) and events (Kim Kardashian’s wedding ceremony affects me how?). Those 24-hour news channels and their brethren up and down the TV dial need fresh content to feed us, but we happily consume it. Each and every offering tastes totally unique.
It’s been ten years since Eric Schlosser shamed us with Fast Food Nation, highlighting how McDonald’s captures children with devious brand loyalty techniques. (Any parent knows this without reading any book.) It’s been eight years since Morgan Spurlock released Super Size Me, a documentary in which his constant consumption of oversized burger meals nearly killed him. I’ll confess that I still occasionally hit the McDonald’s, and I do sometimes super-size my Double Quarter Pounder meal (I’m sorry, Mayor Bloomberg, I can’t get enough Diet Coke). But at least I feel guilty when I do so, and perhaps I do it less than I might have before Schlosser’s book and Spurlock’s film.
Is our society even capable of shame anymore? “The Learning Channel,” after all, gives us a pudgy beauty-pageant toddler drinking “go-go juice,” and we make it one of the highest rated shows on television. That show may be the sign that the “Wordpocalypse” is here, with a character named “Honey Boo Boo” and the producer’s decision to include subtitles so that the show participants’ fractured English can be understood by its viewers.
Ah, maybe that’s the solution? Maybe those smarties in Silicon Valley can develop a broad-based closed captioning usable on any show that converts super-sized speech to words that still convey the proper meaning without losing perspective? I want that feature whenever The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore is on the screen. (Oh, and can we tell these jackalopes to stop telling viewers–who, because they are watching on cable TV, are likely inside–to stay inside during a storm, while they stand outside modeling the very behavior they are warning against? If we can’t rein in their rhetoric, then at least sweep one out to sea and give him a ginormous scare.)
But proportional-language closed-captioning on TV won’t go far enough. I hear these terms everywhere I go. We use them. We abuse them. There are now “Google Goggles” that allow you to surf the Web while you wear them (and you thought texting while driving was a problem.) I want glasses that auto-caption the speech of those around me. Don’t be offended if you see me put in ear plugs. I’m “hearing” you just fine.
But are you hearing me? Do you share my oversized angst? Or am I howling at the wind, which even at half the speed predicted by the TV talking heads is still pretty fierce?
[This post was revised to distinguish between Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me.]
UPDATE NOV. 4: Many thanks to Andrew Sullivan for highlighting this post on The Daily Beast. Andrew’s post guided me to an interesting follow-up post to this one by Kevin Staley-Joyce on First Things Magazine.