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Semantic Bleaching in English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi Just like skin bleaching is the chemically induced lessening of the melanin of a...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Just like skin bleaching is the chemically induced lessening of the melanin of a dark or brown person’s skin, semantic bleaching occurs when a word loses or lessens its original meaning and becomes an intensifier, that is, a word that has no meaning except to lend emphasis to the word it modifies. The most common intensifier in everyday speech is “very.” The word does nothing more than add intensity to what we say. If I say, for instance, that “there were very many people at the party,” I’ve merely used “very” for emphasis, and nothing more.

So almost all intensifiers are semantically bleached words. Linguists call them semantically bleached because they often represent a diminution of their original meaning in the service of adding emphasis to the words they modify. Let’s take the word “very” as an example. The word originally meant “true,” and it still does in some contexts. In fact, in the 13th century, the English word for “true,” according to, was “verai” (which was borrowed from Norman French), from where it evolved to “very.” It shares lexical ancestry with “verily,” “verisimilitude,” “veracity,” etc. which all denote truthfulness. Although “very” still signifies “truth” in many uses, we often don’t think of “truth” when we say things like, “That’s so not very nice of you.”

Another common semantically bleached intensifier is “really.” “Really” originally means “in accordance with truth, fact, or reality,” that is, observable realness as opposed to imagination or fantasy. But “really” has now been thoroughly semantically bleached and is now just used for emphasis, such as when someone says, “Although he is not alone, I think he really feels lonely.” The fact of someone feeling “lonely” can’t be proved in reality by someone who doesn’t have a direct experience of the feeling. Although the word’s original sense still endures in everyday language, its semantically bleached version is now more popular.

Other routinely semantically bleached words are “actually,” “definitely,” “ultimately,” “wonderful,” “awesome,” “amazing,” “insanely” (as in, “insanely busy”), “outrageously” (as in, “outrageously cheap”), “literally,” (as in, “he literally stole the country blind”), “awfully” (as in, “an awfully great performance”), “totally,” “crazy,” “incredibly.”

Perhaps the newest semantically bleached word in Nigerian English is “fantastically,” which came to us after former British Prime Minister David Cameron called Nigeria and Afghanistan “fantastically corrupt,” where “fantastically” merely intensifies “corrupt.”

My reflection on semantic bleaching recalls a May 11, 2011 column I wrote titled, “Superlative Expressions in American English.” See it below:

Semantic Bleaching in American English
A favorite catchphrase Texans cherish about their state is: “everything is bigger in Texas.” Given Americans’ extravagant fondness for exaggerations, intensification, and superlative expressions, they should probably have a shamelessly immodest catchphrase for the whole nation that says, “Everything is biggest in America.”

Americans are the masters of superlatives and intensification. I have never seen a people whose conversational language is so full of intentional and unintentional exaggerations as Americans.
In grammar, a superlative is the form of an adjective or an adverb that indicates its highest level or degree. In the gradation of the levels or degrees of adjectives or adverbs, it’s usual to talk of the base, comparative, and superlative degrees. English superlatives are normally created with the suffix “est” (e.g. wealthiest, strongest) or the word “most” (e.g. most recent, most beautiful). But some words are by nature superlative and require no suffix or "most" to indicate their degree. Examples: absolute, favorite, unique, perfect, etc. Therefore, it would be superfluous (or, as grammarians say it, pleonastic) to write or say "most absolute," "most unique," etc.

So superlative expressions are boastful, hyperbolic expressions that sometimes have no literal relationship with the reality they purport to describe. In this essay, I identify the most common superlative expressions I’ve encountered in American English.

In contemporary American English, instead of simply saying something like “it’s really nice,” young Americans say “it totally rocks!” The “best experience” becomes “the absolute best experience ever.” Kids no longer just have “best friends”; they now have “Best Friends Forever.” There is even an initialism for it: BFF. (An initialism, also called an alphabetism, is an abbreviation made up of first letters of words or syllables, each pronounced separately. E.g. HIV, BFF, CEO). My daughter changes her BFFs every other week! “Forever” now has an expiration date.

On American TV it's now common to hear teenagers use “bestest” (a nonstandard word) to heighten the sense that the superlative adjective “best” conveys, as in: “we had the bestest party ever!” “Baddest” is another nonstandard superlative in American youth lingo. The word has been a part of African-American vernacular English (or Ebonics) for a long time. It’s now fully integrated into mainstream, mostly youth, conversational English. But “bad” here is not the absence of good. It is, on the contrary, the surfeit of goodness or “kewlness” (kewlness is derived from “kewl,” which is the nonstandard slang term for “cool,” i.e., fashionable, excellent, or socially adept) or greatness. So “the baddest guy in town” in the language of the American youth subculture means the best or greatest guy.

The intensifier “very” is now considered tame and lame in American conversational English. It has effectively been replaced with “super.” People are no longer just “very excited”; they are “super excited.” It’s no longer common to hear people being described as “very smart”; they are “super smart.” An alternative intensifier is “uber,” which is borrowed from German. It means extreme or outstanding, as in, “uber-hero,” “uber-smart professor,” etc.

 But it appears that “super” has also exhausted its intensifying elasticity. It is now being replaced with “super-duper.” It’s now typical to hear Americans say they are “super-duper excited” or that they have eaten “super-duper burgers.”

Perfect. In America, everything is “perfect.” During Christmas, New Year, Mother’s Day, etc. people get “perfect gifts” for their loved ones. When appointment times work well, it’s “perfect timing.” Things are not just “acceptable”; they are “perfectly acceptable.” President Obama once described high-flying young country singer Taylor Swift as a “perfectly nice girl.” She is not just nice; she is perfectly nice. Does that mean she has no blemish of any sort? Of course no. It only means “perfect” has lost touch with its original meaning.

When people respond to a question in the affirmative, a simple “yes” is no longer sufficient. They say “absolutely!” The response to a question like “did you have a good time there?” would more likely be “absolutely!” than the hitherto conventional “yes, I did.”

In America, routine, quotidian events are habitually called “one-of-a-kind.” On my daughter’s kid TV, programs are almost always described as “one-of-a-kind TV event.”

And “best ever” has become the default phrase for just about anything. My daughter calls me “the best dad ever” each time I give her a treat. Her “best day ever” is any day she has lots of fun. Now, Americans are graduating from “ever” to “ever ever.” An American friend of mine described one of my Facebook pictures as “my most favorite picture of you ever ever”! Well, “favorite” is itself a superlative word that does not admit of any intensifier in standard grammar. To add "most" and “ever ever” to “favorite” seems to me like imposing an unbearably excessive burden on my poor little picture!

 If an American hates this article, he would probably call it the “worst article ever written article on American fondness for superlatives.” If she is a teenager and likes it, she might call it the “bestest written article on American fondness for superlatives ever ever.”

The American fascination with exaggeration and superlative language is probably the consequence of the ubiquity of advertising in American life. Advertising traditionally engages in hyperbole, deliberate overstatement, and extravagant exaggeration. Now that advertising has become more omnipresent and more intrusive than ever before (this is no American superlative, I swear!) in American life, it is logical that it would influence their everyday language.

 Or it could very well be the linguistic evidence of the over-sized image Americans cherish about themselves. When you’re used to being the world’s number one in most things, it’s inevitable that it will reflect in your language sooner or later.

But the effect of all this is that it has blurred the dividing line between fact and fiction in everyday American life. I am now dubious of many claims here. Everything here is the “world’s biggest.” For instance, Atlanta’s international airport is called the “world’s biggest and busiest airport.” Well, it turns out that the claim is not exactly accurate. In terms of the number of passengers that pass through it annually, it is indeed the world’s busiest airport. But in terms of land mass, there are much bigger airports in the world.

A modestly sized farmer’s market here in Atlanta has also been touted as “the world’s biggest farmer’s market.” If it indeed is, then farmers’ markets elsewhere in the world must be really tiny.

Superlatives certainly make language colorful, but I worry that their untrammeled profusion in everyday speech has the potential to desensitize us to actually exceptional things around us.

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