Superlatives at their absolute best

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May 15, 2009

Let’s get one thing straight. Susan Boyle may be an inspiration for the underdog, but she’s no hero. And yet, I’ve heard people describing her with the h-word and seen the screaming headlines: “Scotland’s New Hero,” “From Zero to Hero”, “An Unlikely Hero.”

Susan Boyle, whose performance on the television show \\\\\

Boyle is the latest in a string of untraditional heroes that includes athletes, performers and politicians. You can strum yourself into a Guitar Hero after watching the TV show Heroes.

The excessive use of the word hero is just one example of our penchant for superlatives (as in ” />

Boyle is the latest in a string of untraditional heroes that includes athletes, performers and politicians. You can strum yourself into a Guitar Hero after watching the TV show Heroes.

The excessive use of the word hero is just one example of our penchant for superlatives (as in ” />

Boyle is the latest in a string of untraditional heroes that includes athletes, performers and politicians. You can strum yourself into a Guitar Hero after watching the TV show Heroes.

The excessive use of the word hero is just one example of our penchant for superlatives (as in “something that embodies excellence”). They reflect our growing need to stand out in a world crowded with people and products jostling for attention. Superlatives help something quite ordinary and average sound better than it may actually be. Essentially, we’re searching for worth, and we’re having to reach further and further to get it.

“In the days of the Greeks, heroic referred to a superhuman feat that few other mortals could achieve,” says Eric Bronson, a professor of humanities at York University. Nowadays, we adhere more to Jonathan Swift’s prescient observation: “Whoe’er excels in what we prize/Appears a hero in our eyes.”

Amazingly intense competition

“It’s understandable that we go to greater and greater lengths to get public recognition,” says Bronson. He claims it’s the result of a breakdown of extended and nuclear families, combined with growing bureaucracies that dehumanize us in the work place.

Jeremy Sherman, an evolutionary epistemologist, sees superlative inflation as compensation in a meritocracy: “There’s less room at the top and more people competing for it, and therefore much more stress.”

We no longer say we’re good or experienced at something. Instead, we have the highest certification, the best companies as employers, and the most outstanding references. We use adverbs to pump up adjectives to pump up nouns: the most amazingly brilliant student or an absolutely first-rate, world-class designer. We just keep climbing up the linguistic ladder.

And we don’t use superlatives just to puff up ourselves. We need to puff up our lifestyles and the products we consume to maintain those lifestyles. Our cereals are the healthiest, our cars are the most fuel-efficient, and our water is the purest.

Heights of purity, morality

Strolling down any supermarket or pharmacy aisle, we’re accosted by so many ultra, superior, ultimate and mega superlatives, it’s a wonder they don’t shove each other off the shelves. Marketing experts say it’s especially noticeable in products related to the environment, aging, and organic (or any ultra good-for-you) food. It seems to me that superlatives are reaching towards loftier heights of purity and morality.

Environmental products are closest to nature, in purest form, while bottled water brands claim to be the purest of the pure (but surely the one that comes from ‘organic fields’ has to be the purest). Anti-aging products assure us we’ll look our youngest and most sublime with names like Age Perfect, Ultra Lift and Age Genesis. And in the edible realm, food claims to be truly and faithfully organic.

Some brands use their name to reach superlative status: Ezekiel 4:6 cereal (possibly the most spiritual breakfast you’ll ever eat) is described as the highest…source of protein, unique and amazing.

Philadelphia cream cheese has gone so far up the superlative food chain as to equate itself with heaven. You’re just that much closer to God if you’re digesting ‘dream’ cheese.

But if our society becomes even more obsessed with superlatives, where do we go from here? Is the sky the limit?

Need for an ideal

Let’s go back to our hero. “If too many people become heroic, then it means nothing,” says Eric Bronson. “You still want an ideal.”

A hero, says Bronson, is a demi-God. That means the next thing up the ladder is, well, God. So maybe we’ll boost people and things ever higher using terms such as God-inspired, Godlike (Most Godlike? No, that’s getting ridiculous). And I see us redoubling our efforts with the double superlatives.

In the meantime, I shall attempt to look sublime while sipping on the purest water known to mankind. I’ll make my most heroic effort anyway.

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