Thursday, October 7, 2010

Souped-Up Superlatives

Yesterday's post on the word enormity led to thoughts of rescuing words whose meanings have become diluted: awesome, sublime, and wonderful particularly.

At an earlier point, I wrote about my need for superlatives. What is it about our culture that results in such a supply of words that mean good?

Superlative Conspiracy hat
Then I started thinking about how many superlatives are related to large size:

Great
Grand
Tremendous
Magnificent
Stupendous
Huge (I frequently hear the slang usage "That's huge!" -- do you?)

Other superlatives express a sense of being overwhelmed by the divine or miraculous:

Marvelous
Sublime
Awesome
Wonderful
Divine
Glorious
Amazing
Astounding
Astonishing
Incredible (literally, not to be believed)

Others are comparative:

First-rate
Top-notch
Quintessential
Matchless
Prime
Superior
Superlative
Superb
Extraordinary
Distinguished
Phenomenal
Notable
Noteworthy
Excellent (that which rises above)
Exquisite (that which is carefully selected, choice)

A few are about attracting attention:

Striking
Remarkable

Then there are the ones that mystify me as to how they came to be synonymous with good:

Terrific (derived from Latin, terrere, to frighten. Maybe this belongs up with sublime?)
Fabulous (derived from Latin, fabula, resembling a fable)
Sensational (arousing the senses, from Latin, sensatus, endowed with sense)

But very few have as generic a meaning as good.

Dandy
is a fun way to say good, although it has a vaguely Southern ring to it, and I have no idea how it came to be used that way. A truncation of "fine and dandy," I'd imagine, but where did that came from?

Fine comes from Latin, finis, meaning end or limit. So I suppose it originally applied to something that was the be-all or end-all. A pretty big come-down to the current way we so often use it to mean just okay. (How's your dinner? It's fine.)

Nice has a damning-with-faint-praise positiveness, although its derivation is almost antonymical: it comes from Middle French niceté, foolishness. (Here in Lake Wobegon Land there's an expression, Minnesota Nice, that's applied to what some see as a positive social characteristic and others see as passive-aggressiveness; I wonder how popular it would be if the phrase was actually Minnesota Foolishness.)

3D words Good Better Best

4 comments:

David Steinlicht said...

One superlative I'm not used to yet is "sick."

(And the slightly outdated "bad.")

I'll probably warm up to "sick" eventually.

I catch myself using "awesome" and I feel like an idiot. But there it is, being said by me.

In the Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout the highest complement Wolfe would bestow was "satisfactory." Or when his employee Archie Goodwin performed a miracle he would bestow a rare "very satisfactory."

About Ken said...

Shouldn't the title of this post be "Souped-Up Superlatives"? With the hyphen?

Daughter Number Three said...

You got me on that one, Ken! Chalk it up to another instance of Muphry's Law, which says that "if you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written."

I'll fix it in the post.

About Ken said...

No big deal. You seem like a stickler, so I just wanted to make sure :)