Overheard while eavesdropping in a restaurant recently:
“This bacon burger is literally amazing.”
Okay, so it is literally amazing? When it hits your tongue, does it cause extreme surprise and great wonder?
We imagine that when the waiter first placed the food in front of this same patron, he or she omitted the standard “Thank you” in favor of “Awesome.” As in, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a plate of food so remarkable so as to stir feelings of fear, wonder or awe in its recipient.
Word choice may seem harmless, but words have meaning. And our collective tendency for hyperbole — for defining everything as amazing or awesome — is in fact rendering everything kind of lackluster. For anything to be truly great, our collective celebration of mediocrity must end, which means we should all make a little more effort to clean and repair our diction.
Though this undertaking will be tough, we’re certain it’ll be rewarding.
Be aware of the offenders
The first step towards cleaning up is knowing when you’re overreaching. Being a thoughtful speaker is an exercise in mindfulness. You have to be fully engaged in the moment, and listening and considering before letting mindless fillers or flaccid affirmations tumble from your trap.
Use descriptors in lieu of superlatives
This is where we hear the misused “Awesomes,” “Amazings” and (cringe) “Epics.” If you need to qualify something, use a more precise word. You’d be correct to use the word “amazing” when describing what it’s like to stand next to a lion or watch the birth of your first child. You’d be wrong to use that word to describe a bacon burger.
Qualify size: “It’s as big as Andre the Giant’s hand.” “It’s prodigious, as far as meat patties go.”
Qualify taste: “The patty is 40 percent ground bacon and 60 percent top sirloin.” “The melted fontina runs down the sides like warm butter.” “It’s smeared with ground mustard seeds.” Even a “Delicious” will do in a pinch.
“Epic,” as pointed out recently by the New Yorker, is a word that should only be used to describe something truly massive or a type of poem.
Mind the Fillers
Fillers are words we use to keep the conversation lubricated. These aren’t half as offensive as hyperbolic descriptors, but if you remove them from your vocab, you’ll sound more articulate.
“Totally.” “Cool.” “Uh-huh.”
The fix: just nod, smile, listen and/or repeat back what someone has said for clarification.
Slang and colloquialisms are fine
Especially if you’re playing around with standard meanings and grammar. Take the phrase “It’s been around a hot minute.” Means something has been around much longer than a minute. Irony is good.
But watch out for hackneyed tech speak
“He’s killing it,” “He’s crushing it, “He’s a wizard,” “He’s a ninja.” We’re not at Hogwarts. Drop these words. Drop them now.
Enhance your vocabulary
By reading writers who use big words, and often. Here’s a list who do it right:
David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest; Brief Interviews With Hideous Men)
Tom Robbins (Skinny Legs and All; Jitterbug Perfume)
Tom Wolfe (The Bonfire of the Vanities; The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test)
David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas; The Bone Clocks)
Thomas Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow; The Crying of Lot 49)
Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita; Pale Fire)
Doing crossword puzzles is another easy way to fortify and replenish.
Finally, literally stop using literally when you mean figuratively
Just because Merriam-Webster caved a couple years ago to accommodate shitty usage everywhere doesn’t mean you have to.
And remember: “Good” means something is pleasing or of high quality. There’s nothing wrong with good. In fact, there’s humility in being good, and humility leads to grace.
And grace is a sort of quiet awesomeness.