OPINION | FRAN ALEXANDER: A (wrong) way with words … absolutely

Lackadaisical word use can be challenging

"Yeah, no, absolutely" is a response I've yet to translate into a logical answer for anything, but I'm trying. I understand that "yeah" means "yes," and the adverb "absolutely" is, like most adverbs, used to add more emphasis to the "yes," but where did the "no" come from and what does it do to the "yes?" Usually in this life we're told we can't have things both ways ... absolutely.

Some definitions say the word "absolutely" stresses that something is "completely true." OK, but how can something be true if it isn't completely true, or clear if not totally clear, or right if not exactly right? (Groan.)

"Absolutely" has permeated current language usage and is prophetic, considering we are surrounded by existential threats like climate change and nuclear war, both of which are absolute. Yet, like "awesome," which was worn out a few years ago, we toss off "absolutely" as a space filler or piece of punctuation. It is heard so often by itself or after "yeah" that it's a wonder we humans do not get along better given all that unequivocal agreement. Maybe that's why the qualifier, "no" sneaks in occasionally to weaken and even cancel all that certainty. I wonder what part of "no'" do we not understand?

Speaking of "existential threats," we hurled around that word combination frequently before the pandemic. With the reality of thousands dying weekly, perhaps those two words hit too close to home, so we backed off overusing them in our word salads. The pandemic was "real reality," said one commentator, which would surely have brought gastric distress to the late poet Miller Williams. Years ago he'd collected "real authentic" as an example of utterance indigestion.

"Systemic" has had a fairly strong rejuvenation, probably because it was sucked into the gravitational pull of the word "racism." Racism, as we are painfully aware, has had a revival along with white supremacy. Up until Trump (both a noun and a verb), "systemic" seemed to be applied mostly to define herbicides that are taken up by plants to kill them. Nowadays we seem determined to deny that systemic things exist in our society, a blindfold that may also be deadly.

Often I feel the urge to verbally stifle people who cannot speak even one sentence without saying, "you know." I've even made a game of counting the times it pops up in interviews, and the tally can be in the hundreds. Adding "like" to "you know" can push word-sensitive individuals dangerously close to an edge, and the use of "like" to mean, "said" can take some of us on over into a word-babbling abyss.

"Enough is enough," we scream, but that's another mix of words that doesn't make much sense. "Enough" is too much if it's you or your family who are bumped off from gun violence, for example. "Enough" implies we've reached some random limit of tolerance, and we say crazy phrases like "far too many have died." How many are too many? Or, how about "reckless murder," which is a legal term for death caused by reckless behavior. It seems to me that all murder is undoubtedly (absolutely) reckless.

The Oscar for Most Overused Word in recent years surely goes to "unprecedented," without which the nightly news probably could no longer function. Maybe Trump's shenanigans gave rise to it or perhaps it's our collective shock to find our world teetering on cliffs no one ever dreamed would be in our future. The talking heads tell us we are at the unprecedented dawn of multiple firsts and never-befores, and we indeed may be.

"Unprecedented" leads me to one of its synonyms, my favorite maligned word, "unique." It's an adjective meaning one, single, sole and only-one-of-its-kind. We are each and every one unique and therefore irreplaceable. Yet, for some reason, we want to glob adverbs on to modify an absolute adjective that isn't supposed to be modified. These are a few of the adverbs that are wrongly stuck in front of "unique:" very, really, quite, kinda, rather, utterly, most, more, unusually, fairly, sorta, truly, incredibly, highly, so, amazingly and completely.

Modifiers change words and concepts, but if something is unique, standing alone is all the status it needs. However, my purist soul has forgiven and accepted one exception to modify "unique." From the mouth of an antique auctioneer before starting his final chant, and while holding up an ugly, seemingly useless item, came the words, "damned unique." He was right. Absolutely.

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