The Semantic Bleaching Edition
On language, overuse, and Generation Hyperbole
Noah here. Everything is awesome. Or at least that is how the song from the Lego Movie goes. It does sometimes feel like people throw around superlatives like wonderful, amazing, and incredible to describe fairly unremarkable events. Writing for Lithub, Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza describes the phenomena as “semantic bleaching,” “like staining all the color out of our words, and it happens with overuse.” Here’s what happens:
To attract attention, we submit to the “maxim of extravagance.” You really want people to see the taxidermied pig you just bought, so you tell your friend, “Man, this thing is incredible. It’s wearing a lederhosen and everything.” Your friend goes to see the pig and he too is surprised by the thing. He starts telling his friends, “that thing is incredible.” This is called “conformity.” Word gets around the neighborhood and then the whole block is talking about the incredible taxidermied pig. This is called “frequency.” You’re out for a walk one day, and you flag down a Door Dasher on a bicycle. “Have you seen the—” “The incredible taxidermied pig? Yeah man, whatever.” This is called “predictability.”
Predictability is useful when we want to fit in with the crowd, but it’s not useful if we want to attract attention, which you need at this point, because you’ve started charging admission to see the pig. Now you need to innovate, and you’re back to the maxim of extravagance again, so the pig becomes unbelievable.
From Google Ngrams, which looks at word usage in books over the last 200 years
In my own experience, Grammarly is constantly trying to get me to rephrase “interesting” in newsletter edits as it considers the word overused.
Why is this interesting?
Two things came to mind reading this piece. The first is that there’s a connection between this kind of superlative overuse and information theory. Put entirely too simply, information theory says that information is a measure of uncertainty: words, pictures, and events that are unexpected have a higher information content than ones that are more easily predicted. A coin toss carries less information than a dice roll which has far less information content than the swirls generated by poring milk in your coffee. (Bits, a word Shannon introduced, effectively measures the number of yes/no questions to come to the end result.) Some part of the information content of a word is how expected it is. You can easily still understand someone if they leave “is” and “to” out of a sentence, but it would be much harder if they left out the nouns. Whether it’s this kind of over-extravagance or just your everyday business buzzwords, the more it's casually used, particularly in ways that don’t match up with its meaning, the more expected it becomes and the less information it ultimately carries.
But there’s something else that caught my eye here when digging into the Ngrams charts. Specifically, when I included excellent, I saw a very different picture. It totally reoriented the chart and showed a long decline, despite being in the Lithub article’s opening anecdote (“I’d like to make an appointment for my dog, I said. Wonderful, said the scheduler. June McCrary. Excellent. She needs an anal gland expression. Fantastic!”)
While awesome and amazing are clearly at a much higher point than they’ve been historically, wonderful is basically just getting back to its 1920s levels. So maybe we really are “Generation Hyperbole,” as the piece puts it—overusing these words as a crutch to help us deal with a changing world. Or maybe it’s just part of a more regular cycle of change, in which language shifts with the times. (NRB)
WITI x McKinsey:
An ongoing partnership where we highlight interesting McKinsey research, writing, and data.
Want a refresher on inflation? Are you up to date but want to dive deeper? Check out our McKinsey Explainers—curated quick reads on big topics, backed by our insights. Read an Explainer on inflation here.
Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)
Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).